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Man guilty of murder and arson in 2003 Old fire

Rickie Lee Fowler is convicted in the deaths of five men who suffered fatal heart attacks. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty.

August 15, 2012|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Rickie Lee Fowler is led from a courtroom in San Bernardino County by sheriff's deputies after a jury found him guilty of murder and arson for his role in starting the 2003 Old fire, which led to the deaths of five people and destroyed 1,000 homes.
Rickie Lee Fowler is led from a courtroom in San Bernardino County by sheriff's… (Rick Sforza / The San Bernardino…)

A San Bernardino man was convicted of murder and arson Wednesday for his role in sparking the 2003 Old fire, which led to the deaths of five people, destroyed 1,000 homes and blackened a huge swath of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Rickie Lee Fowler, described by prosecutors as a career criminal, was found to have deliberately set the blaze, which grew to 91,000 acres, by tossing a lighted road flare into the parched brush at the base of the mountains.

Prosecutors charged Fowler in the deaths of five men, the oldest of whom was 94, whose fatal heart attacks were said to be directly attributable to the stress they experienced because of the fire. Fowler was also convicted on two counts of arson and of special circumstances that make him subject to the death penalty.

WHO THEY WERE: Victims of the Old Fire

The penalty phase of the trial is scheduled to begin Monday and prosecutors will be seeking a death sentence, a spokesman said.

With the trial continuing, attorneys for both sides declined to comment after the guilty verdicts.

But the grandson of one victim, James McDermith, said he was relieved by the conviction and noted that nearly nine years have passed since the fire and his grandfather's death.

"I'm glad that justice is served," said Brad McDermith, 32, a Riverside County resident and small-business owner who said he had lived with his grandfather in Highland for many years.

"What's most important now is that this guy be locked away where he won't do anything like this again," McDermith said of Fowler. "It can't bring my grandfather back but it'll keep him from killing anyone else."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bulloch, in his closing statement this week, described Fowler as "evil." He said Fowler had intentionally set the fire in a fit of rage against a man who had kicked Fowler out of his house.

Lead defense attorney Don Jordan argued that the prosecution had no direct evidence showing that Fowler had set the blaze.

The Old fire broke out Oct. 25, 2003, at Old Waterman Canyon Road and California 18, and raced through the forest and brush, forcing the evacuation of more than 30 communities and 80,000 people. Six men died of heart attacks, although prosecutors said one could not be directly linked to the stress of the fire.

A few months later, on Christmas Day, a huge mudslide caused by intense rain on the denuded slopes of the burn area swept through a church camp in Waterman Canyon, killing 14 people. Fowler was not charged in that incident.

Investigators said they questioned Fowler shortly after the fire, but did not have enough evidence to arrest him. Another suspect, Martin Valdez, 24, was fatally shot in Muscoy in 2006. At the time of the fire, witnesses reported seeing the suspects in a white van throwing a flaming object into the canyon.

Much of the prosecution's case hinged on incriminating comments Fowler made to investigators in 2008, in which he acknowledged that he was attempting to burn down the home of a friend, but had not been the one who actually set the blaze. Fowler told investigators that he went to the back of the van and took out a flare, but that Valdez had grabbed the flare from him and tossed it.

The victims included McDermith, 70, who died trying to retrieve his trailer from the fire and Charles H. Cunningham, 93, who died of a heart attack as he watched flames engulf his one-story house in San Bernardino.

The other victims were Chad Leo Williams, 70; Robert Norman Taylor, 54; and Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67. The circumstances of their deaths were not detailed in the indictment.

phil.willon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson contributed to this report.

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