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San Bernardino man faces charges in fatal 2003 wildfire

Rickie Lee Fowler, 28, accused of setting the 91,000-acre Old fire, faces five murder counts. The blaze destroyed almost 1,000 homes.

October 21, 2009|David Kelly and Robert J. Lopez

SAN BERNARDINO AND LOS ANGELES — A San Bernardino man was charged Tuesday with five counts of murder for allegedly setting the massive 2003 Old fire that destroyed nearly a 1,000 homes.

Rickie Lee Fowler, 28, who has been in state prison since 2003 for burglary, also was charged with arson and aggravated arson, authorities said. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

"The investigators in this case never gave up; there was tremendous follow-up," San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos said at a news conference Tuesday. "Our hearts go out to the thousands of people affected by this fire -- the most devastating fire in the history of this county."

The 91,000-acre wildfire broke out Oct. 25, 2003, at Old Waterman Canyon Road and California 18 in the San Bernardino Mountains. It quickly raced through the forest and brush, forcing the evacuation of more than 30 communities and 80,000 people. Six men died of heart attacks, and investigators said five of those deaths were directly related to the stress of the fire.

On Christmas Day of that year, a huge mudslide caused by intense rain swept through a church camp in Waterman Canyon, killing 14 people.

Supervising Deputy Dist. Atty. Victor Stull said Fowler was questioned shortly after the fire, but there was not enough evidence to arrest him. Another suspect, Martin Valdez, 24, was fatally shot in Muscoy in an unrelated incident in 2006. At the time of the fire, witnesses reported seeing the suspects in a white van throwing a flaming object into the canyon. Stull said it was a road flare.

No motive for the arson has been disclosed. When asked about reports that Fowler was seeking revenge on someone living in Waterman Canyon, Stull said he could neither confirm nor deny that.

But Stull did say that new evidence began coming in over the last few weeks, including phone tips. With the statute of limitations for the arson charges set to expire this month, investigators felt the need to move quickly. The evidence was presented to a special criminal grand jury, which indicted Fowler on Tuesday.

"As we enter into Santa Ana wind conditions, it is significant that we have taken an arsonist off the streets at this time so that it doesn't happen again," said San Bernardino County Fire Chief Patrick Dennen.

Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the indictment is a message to others that arson won't be tolerated.

"Arson is hard to prove, and it's even harder to catch the bad guys, but they caught this bad guy," he said. "It's important so others will be dissuaded from doing it in the future."

Fire victim Charles H. Cunningham, 93, was a parishioner at St. Francis Episcopal Church, located a few blocks from his home in the San Bernardino foothills. Cunningham died of a heart attack as he watched flames engulf his one-story house.

His former priest, Aloha Smith, said she hoped the indictment would help bring closure for victims but added that it would never bring back all that was lost.

"Basically, it killed the church," she said of the wildfire, which prompted many of her parishioners to leave the area. "It's just a tragedy because the church would have survived and thrived."

Lisa McDermith, daughter-in-law of 70-year-old James McDermith of Highland who died trying to retrieve his trailer during the fire, said she hoped Fowler is convicted.

"The whole family will be happy, not only for us but for the other victims as well," she said. "I think when you do a crime, you do the time. I think it's time he pays for this."

Other victims named in the indictment against Fowler were Chad Leo Williams, 70; Robert Norman Taylor, 54; and Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67.


Researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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