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Man convicted of murder in Esperanza blaze that killed 5 firefighters in 2006

March 07, 2009|David Kelly

A Riverside County jury convicted Raymond Lee Oyler on Friday on five counts of first-degree murder for setting the 2006 Esperanza fire, which killed five firefighters and was one of the deadliest wildfires in recent California history.

The jury deliberated for six days before finding the 38-year-old Beaumont mechanic guilty on 42 of 45 counts against him, including 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of possession of incendiary devices.

Jurors deadlocked on whether he started three smaller wildfires and Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan declared a mistrial on those counts.

The victims' families quietly sobbed and hugged one another as the court clerk spoke the name of each firefighter and a guilty verdict was pronounced. Oyler, in a black suit and shackles, betrayed no emotion. Some of his relatives cried loudly in the back row.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 08, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Raymond Lee Oyler verdict: An article in Saturday's Section A said the Esperanza fire had the highest number of firefighter deaths in California since 1933. In fact, there have been other blazes, including the Loop fire in 1966 and the Rattlesnake fire in 1953, that have killed more firefighters.

The jury will return Tuesday to begin the penalty phase of the trial, in which it will decide whether Oyler should get the death penalty or life in prison without parole. None of the families of those involved would comment after the verdict.

"Arson is a terrible crime, one that threatens everyone," Jeanne Wade Evans, supervisor of the San Bernardino National Forest, said outside the courthouse. "We still feel the loss and we always will."

The deadly wildfire was set early on the morning of Oct. 26, 2006, a few feet off remote Esperanza Avenue in Cabazon. Investigators said Oyler, who once trained as a firefighter, had set fires throughout the San Gorgonio Pass in the months leading up to the blaze -- each time aiming for bigger infernos.

He chose a night when Santa Ana winds were blowing exceptionally hard. After making a device out of matches fastened with rubber bands around a Marlboro cigarette, Oyler lit the cigarette and tossed the device into the brush. A fire was soon roaring up the San Jacinto Mountains, eventually reaching speeds of 40 mph and consuming 41,000 acres. Early the next morning, it rolled over the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57 as they struggled to save a house in a steep canyon.

Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; and Jason McKay, 27, died immediately. Pablo Cerda, 24, died a few days later. Four of the five were based in Idyllwild.

It was the highest number of firefighter deaths in California since 1933, when 25 men were killed fighting a fire in Griffith Park.

Oyler said he had been home with his 6-month-old daughter. But he was caught on a surveillance video at a nearby Shell station soon after the blaze started, watching it burn.

Authorities searching his car found a wig, black spray paint and a partially burned slingshot, which they say he used to shoot his devices into dry brush. He told investigators he smoked Kool cigarettes when he actually smoked Marlboros. His cousin testified that Oyler had bragged days before the incident about wanting to "set the mountain on fire."

Defense attorney Mark McDonald conceded that Oyler had set 11 fires, but he said another arsonist started the Esperanza fire.

After more than a month of testimony, the jury accepted the prosecution's argument that Oyler was the only logical suspect. The lawyers on both sides declined to comment after the verdict.

Riverside County Fire Chief John R. Hawkins praised the jury and investigators.

"These families have suffered a loss that most of us can't imagine," he said. "This will not bring complete closure but it will . . . help the families move to another phase of healing."

Firefighter Richard Gearhart spoke of his dead comrades.

"I knew Mark [Loutzenhiser] well, and I miss him," he said. "His death hurts me a lot. I'm very happy with what happened here today."

--

david.kelly@latimes.com

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