Man charged with setting S. Calif. fire

November 03, 2006|By Maeve Reston and Michael Muskal | Maeve Reston and Michael Muskal,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Raymond Lee Oyler, a 36-year-old car mechanic, was accused yesterday of starting the Esperanza wildfire. He is charged with arson and murder in connection with the deadliest blaze for U.S. firefighters in more than a decade.

Oyler, who was already in custody and accused of setting two smaller fires in the same area of Riverside County, appeared in court and pleaded not guilty to all charges. He was held without bail and is to return to court Dec. 15.

Court papers show Oyler faces five counts of murder, 11 counts of arson and 10 counts of using an incendiary device. He is accused of setting fires from June 7 to Oct. 26, the date of the Esperanza fire.

The charges could lead to a capital punishment case, but District Attorney Rod Pacheco said at a morning news conference that his office will consult with friends and families of the dead firefighters before deciding whether to seek the death penalty.

If convicted, Oyler could face at least life in prison without parole.

Pacheco said local, state and federal investigators "have worked tirelessly in the last several days and weeks to solve a most heinous crime."

In 2001, Oyler pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in San Bernardino County and served nine days in jail. Six years earlier, he was convicted in the same county of taking a vehicle without the owner's consent.

"Our hearts go out to all of the families who suffered a loss of a loved one in the Esperanza fire and to all of our brothers and sisters in the fire service," Riverside County Undersheriff Neil Lingle said at the news conference.

The Esperanza fire began just after 1 a.m. Oct. 26 in the San Jacinto Mountains and burned for about five days before it was fully contained. Pushed by fierce Santa Ana winds, the fire consumed more than 40,000 acres, destroyed 34 homes and led to the evacuation of hundreds of people from Twin Pines and Poppet Flats.

Five firefighters lost their lives in fighting the blaze, the last this week at a hospital.

The fifth death gave the Esperanza fire, about 20 miles from Palm Springs, the tragic distinction of having the greatest loss of firefighters in a single wildfire incident since 14 died in July 1994 near Glenwood Springs, Colo.

The deaths rocked the region and attracted a reward pool of more than $550,000. One official called the arsonist "scum" and urged the public to help find those responsible.

Authorities sifted through more than 300 reports received on a phone hot line and interviewed several people.

More than 50 investigators from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies worked on the case. Among the investigators were two profilers from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a polygraph examiner.

Among those questioned last week was Oyler, who lives in Beaumont. He was arrested at 3 p.m. Tuesday in connection with two other fires.

He was charged with two counts of arson linked to June wildfires in the San Gorgonio Pass area and two counts of possessing fire-making materials, according to the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

Oyler, who had been held in lieu of $25,000 bail, was scheduled to be arraigned on those charges yesterday afternoon.

Although authorities didn't indicate which fires Oyler was originally charged with setting, Riverside and San Bernardino counties were hit with a rash of more than 40 small, suspicious fires in May and the first half of June.

One such fire in mid-June broke out not far from the Esperanza blaze.

The vast Esperanza fire killed four Idyllwild-based firefighters who were trying to save a remote canyon home. A fifth crew member, Pablo Cerda, 23, died Tuesday of burns that covered 90 percent of his body.

Along with Cerda, the firefighters killed were Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, the team's captain; Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20.

In addition to those who died, a dozen firefighters were injured.

Maeve Reston and Michael Muskal write for the Los Angeles Times.

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