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Arsonist gets death penalty in fatal Old fire

Jurors order Rickie Lee Fowler to be executed in the 2003 wildfire, but the judge notes that Prop. 34 to abolish the death penalty could alter sentence.

September 29, 2012|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Rickie Lee Fowler ignited the Old fire by throwing a burning road flare into dry brush, jurors ruled.
Rickie Lee Fowler ignited the Old fire by throwing a burning road flare into… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

A San Bernardino County jury on Friday ordered a death sentence for the violent methamphetamine addict convicted of setting the catastrophic 2003 Old fire that destroyed 1,000 homes, blackened the San Bernardino Mountains and led to five deaths.

The jury in August found that Rickie Lee Fowler deliberately set the blaze by tossing a lighted road flare into brush at the base of the mountains on an October day when Southern California already was overwhelmed by wind-fed wildfires, convicting him of murder and arson.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bullock portrayed Fowler as an evil and sadistic felon who inflicted "misery and mayhem" on those who crossed his path throughout his life — raping and brutalizing two girlfriends, one of whom was pregnant with his son, and sodomizing a jail cellmate whom he turned into a "sex slave."

"I would like to thank the jury for doing the right thing. This is one of those crimes that reaches out and grabs you by the throat,'' Bulloch at a news conference afterward.

Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith is scheduled to sentence Fowler on Nov. 16. The judge has the legal authority to dismiss the jury's recommendation and instead sentence Fowler to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but such an action is rare in California.

Smith noted that Californians on Nov. 6 will vote on a proposed ballot initiative — Proposition 34 — that, if approved, would abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Depending on what happens with that, it could affect sentencing in this matter,'' Smith said during Friday's hearing.

Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos said it would be a travesty of justice if California voters approved the measure, in effect granting Fowler and "baby murderers and cop killers" a reprieve from death row.

"We cannot allow a proposition to overturn what happened today in San Bernardino County for these five victims,'' Ramos said.

The jury spent 11 days deliberating Fowler's sentence, its final act in a trial that began in late July. Jurors declined to comment afterward, and no relatives of the Old fire victims attended the hearing.

Fowler, wearing a baggy dress shirt and charcoal slacks, showed little emotion when the death recommendation was read, only leaning over to whisper to his attorney Michael Belter.

Belter said his client was relieved that the deliberations had finally ended, but "obviously Mr. Fowler was disappointed with the result."

Fowler's attorneys plan to file a motion for a new trial, arguing that the prosecution did not present any direct evidence showing that Fowler had set the blaze or that the deaths were intentional. All five deaths were due to heart attacks triggered by the stress of the fire, according to prosecution testimony.

Belter said that during his conversation with jurors after Friday's hearing it was clear that they spent a lot of time considering those arguments. "I think the jury went back and forth," he said. "They had different splits, they had a lot to talk about.''

The prosecutor said Fowler deliberately set the blaze in Waterman Canyon in a fit of rage against his godfather, who had kicked Fowler out of his house at the top of the canyon.

The 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. It came as firefighters were battling a blaze in Upland and Rancho Cucamonga. 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 debris flow — 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 at that time. Another suspect in the fire, Martin Valdez, 24, was fatally shot in Muscoy, near San Bernardino, in 2006. At the time of the fire, witnesses reported seeing Fowler and Valdez in a white van throwing a flaming object into Waterman Canyon.

Much of the prosecution's case hinged on comments Fowler made in 2008 in which he acknowledged to investigators that he was attempting to burn down the home of a friend, but denied that he was the one who set the blaze. Fowler told investigators that he went to the back of the van and took out a flare, but that Valdez grabbed the flare and tossed it.

phil.willon@latimes.com

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