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Death penalty is urged for arsonist

March 18, 2009|David Kelly

Saying that Raymond Lee Oyler killed five firefighters in an "unspeakable, violent and brutal" way, prosecutors asked a jury Tuesday to order the death penalty for the arsonist convicted of setting the 2006 Esperanza fire.

"By his actions, he decided that these men would have the flesh burned from their bodies, have their lives ripped away from them," said Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin. "What could possibly be more brutal than what Raymond Oyler did to these men?"

Hestrin spoke during final arguments in the death-penalty phase of the Oyler trial. The 38-year-old Beaumont mechanic was found guilty March 6 of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device.

In an emotional argument that reduced the victims' families and at least one juror to tears, Hestrin accused Oyler of being a coldhearted, calculating killer who may not have intended to commit murder but knew the destructive power of the numerous fires he set.

"He didn't plan and premeditate the deaths of these men, but he planned the fire and he knew what it could do," Hestrin said. "This is not reckless. Reckless is flicking a cigarette out the window on a dry day. This is murder."

The Esperanza fire was set in the early morning hours of Oct. 26, 2006, in Cabazon using a device made with matchsticks and a cigarette. Fierce Santa Ana winds drove the flames up a steep slope in the San Jacinto Mountains.

A U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew based in Idyllwild was overrun by flames as it tried to save a house in a steep valley. The victims were Pablo Cerda, 23; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; Jason McKay, 27; and Jess McLean, 27.

Defense attorney Thomas Eckhardt admitted that his client was a murderer and an arsonist who repeatedly set fires, but said the "victims are gone and they are not coming back no matter what you do."

He urged the jury not to vote for the death penalty. "Don't do it, it's not necessary and nobody gains," he said. "You end up in a process like that with blood on your hands."

Oyler sat quietly, showing no emotion. His family, the victims' families and numerous firefighters packed the courtroom.

Hestrin detailed the agonizing deaths of the men. The skin was burned from some of their bodies and their feet were incinerated. Others gasped in vain for air with burnt lungs before dying.

"Imagine that kind of death," Hestrin told jurors. "What punishment does Raymond Oyler deserve for making Mark Loutzenhiser's last moments on Earth a living hell? All he could do for the last 30 minutes was lay on his back, unable to move and gasp for air, knowing he would never hold his daughter again."

Hestrin showed surveillance footage of Oyler in a gas station on the afternoon of Oct. 26, after the deaths, laughing it up and slapping a female clerk on the buttocks. Hestrin said Oyler set off yet another incendiary device that same day.

The prosecutor refused to show photos of the dead firefighters. Instead he showed them alive. A slide show appeared on television monitors in the silent courtroom. There was Cerda as a boy opening presents at Christmas, McKay snorkeling, a young McLean on Santa's lap, Loutzenhiser with his family and Hoover-Najera graduating from high school.

"It's morally necessary to do justice and sentence Raymond Oyler to death," Hestrin said. "He deserves it."

A death penalty would require a unanimous decision by the jury of eight women and four men. Deliberations began late Tuesday.

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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