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Prosecutor urges death penalty for Old fire arsonist

Defense attorney for arsonist who started the destructive 2003 Old fire says jurors should consider Rickie Lee Fowler's nightmare childhood of abuse and drugs.

September 07, 2012|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Rickie Lee Fowler, seen in July, was convicted of setting 2003's Old fire, which destroyed 1,000 homes. Jurors are considering whether he deserves the death penalty.
Rickie Lee Fowler, seen in July, was convicted of setting 2003's Old… (LaFonzo Carter, Associated…)

The San Bernardino man convicted of setting the 2003 Old fire that destroyed 1,000 homes and led to five deaths is a sadistic felon who raped, robbed and tortured people throughout his life and deserves a death sentence, a San Bernardino County prosecutor told jurors Thursday.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bullock told jurors that Rickie Lee Fowler's drug addiction and horrific childhood did not excuse the "misery and mayhem" he caused.

Defense attorney Michael Belter acknowledged the trail of devastation Fowler left but urged jurors to consider the nightmare of a childhood that twisted Fowler's psyche. His parents were methamphetamine addicts who expressed no concern when Fowler was sexually molested by a neighbor and when he and his siblings went hungry, Belter said.

"When you're 8 years old, you should not be living in filth or given a line of methamphetamine by your dad," Belter told the jurors. "You wouldn't treat a dog like that."

The same panel that convicted Fowler of arson and five counts of first-degree murder in August began deliberations in the sentencing phase Thursday afternoon. They will decide whether to recommend a sentence of death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Shortly before deliberations began, the case took an unusual twist: Fowler sent the judge a note saying he had been denied the opportunity to testify. Judge Michael A. Smith told Fowler that he didn't "think that would be wise" but said he would allow Fowler to take the stand. After consulting with his attorneys, Fowler decided to remain silent.

In the years before setting the deadly blaze, Bullock told jurors, Fowler raped and brutalized two girlfriends, one of whom was pregnant with his son, and he turned a jail cellmate into his personal "sex slave." When a friend's mother took him into her home, he stabbed her with a butcher knife, stole her small kitty of cash, then slashed her dog, he said.

"You are not going to find a better case than this for the death penalty," the prosecutor told jurors.

Belter urged the panel to give Fowler a sentence of life without parole, arguing that Fowler never intended to kill anyone and that his actions didn't "rise to the level of premeditated murder.''

The Old fire broke out Oct. 25, 2003, at Old Waterman Canyon Road and California 18, forcing the evacuation of more than 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, 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.

Bullock said Fowler deliberately set the blaze by tossing a lighted road flare into the brush at the base of the mountains in a fit of rage at his godfather, who had kicked him out of his house at the top of Waterman Canyon.

phil.willon@latimes.com

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