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Trial of Esperanza fire suspect ends

Raymond Lee Oyler is accused of setting the deadly blaze in Cabazon in 2006 for his own amusement. Five firefighters died.

February 27, 2009|David Kelly

After more than a month of testimony, the trial of Raymond Lee Oyler ended Thursday with the prosecution describing the Beaumont mechanic as a murderer who set a killer wildfire for his own amusement and to satisfy a lust for power. The defense conceded that Oyler set 11 fires, just not the 2006 Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters.

"Those five men were killed by a man who taught himself to use fire as a weapon," said Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin. "The fire washed over them. It tore the flesh from their bodies. At that moment, Raymond Oyler took everything from those men -- everything they were and everything they would ever be."

Hestrin said Oyler, 38, had begun setting small fires with matches and cigarettes, but as time went on, they grew larger.

"In the days leading up to Esperanza, he became obsessed with setting the mountain on fire," Hestrin said. "This was a man who kept pushing and pushing to get what he wanted. What he wanted was total destruction."

The Esperanza fire erupted in the early-morning hours of Oct. 26 at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains in Cabazon. Santa Ana winds pushed the flames up the mountain, where they reached speeds of 40 mph and temperatures of 1,500 degrees. A crew of U.S. Forest Service firefighters was trapped in a steep canyon while trying to save a house. Flames rolled over them, killing three instantly and two shortly after.

Oyler was arrested a few days later and charged with setting the fire and at least 23 others in the San Gorgonio Pass area. Inside his car, authorities found a wig, latex gloves, cigarettes, black spray paint and a partially burned slingshot that Hestrin said was used to launch incendiary devices into the brush. His DNA was found on two cigarette butts used in other nearby wildfires.

During the trial, a truck driver said he spoke to Oyler at a gas station shortly after the fire started. As they watched the flames run up the mountain, he said, Oyler told him that the fire "is happening just the way I thought it would."

Oyler's girlfriend told police that he had bragged about setting fires and had complained that they weren't big enough. She threatened to leave him if he didn't stop, so he quit for six months, Hestrin said.

The families of the victims, along with firefighters, packed the courtroom. Many quietly wept during some of the more graphic testimony.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald said Hestrin had Oyler "dead to rights" on setting many of the smaller fires, but not the Esperanza fire. He said Oyler usually set fires by laying matches over a lighted cigarette, not with the kind of device used in the Esperanza blaze, which was made of matches wrapped around a cigarette with a rubber band. His client, he said, was a scapegoat.

"Raymond Oyler's fight is against human emotions, it's the fight against the death of five heroes," McDonald said. "We want to hold someone accountable. There is an overwhelming urge by the public to find somebody. That somebody was Raymond Oyler."

McDonald said that Oyler was home with his infant daughter the night of the fire and that evidence points to at least one other arsonist working in the area at the time.

Hestrin rejected the two arsonist theory. He said that all the fires occurred near Oyler's home when he was off work and that surveillance cameras and witnesses saw him near the fires, including the Esperanza blaze.

"Raymond Oyler set this fire and killed these five brave men," Hestrin told jurors. "Hold him accountable for murder. That's what he did. He killed these men."

Deliberations are set to begin today.


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