RIVERSIDE – A former Beaumont mechanic was convicted Friday of five counts of first-degree murder for setting the 2006 Esperanza wildfire near Cabazon that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes.
Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, faces a possible death sentence for sparking the blaze that killed Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, and firefighters Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, and Pablo Cerda, 24, who were overcome by flames while defending a home near Twin Pines.
In addition to the murder charges, the four-man, eight-woman jury also convicted Oyler of 37 counts of arson and possessing incendiary devices connected to nearly two dozen fires that occurred in the same general area between May and October 2006.
Jurors, who deliberated for about six days, deadlocked on three arson charges related to brush fires deliberately set in the last few days of May 2006. None of the blazes exceeded an acre in size.
“Today’s decision was for the five incredible men who responded … to the Esperanza fire and never came home,” Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins said outside court, moments after the verdicts were read. “Their families experienced a loss none of us can ever imagine.
“There is not a day that goes by that I and fellow firefighters don’t think of the sacrifice and pain these families have endured. … Today is not closure. (But) it will help the families move into another stage of healing, and it will assure no one else suffers at (Oyler’s) hands.”
Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin and Oyler’s attorney, Mark McDonald, declined comment on the verdicts, saying any statements would have to wait until after the penalty phase of trial, at the end of which jurors will recommend that the defendant be sentenced to death or life in prison.
The penalty phase of trial will begin Tuesday morning. Hestrin said the trial should finish in roughly two weeks.
Members of Oyler’s family began weeping in court as the verdicts were read. Relatives of the fallen firefighters held hands as they were waiting to hear the jury’s decision. Some prayed.
The Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza wildfire scorched more than 41,000 acres near Cabazon, damaged or destroyed 54 homes and other structures and killed the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57.
Loutzenhiser, McKay, McLean and Hoover-Najera died when a wall of flame enveloped them as they deployed around an evacuated home. Cerda died at a hospital a few days later, with burns to more than 90 percent of his body.
“Arson is a terrible crime that threatens everyone,” said Jeanne Wade Evans, U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the San Bernardino National Forest. “We still feel this loss.”
Hestrin said just about all the fires occurred within a 10-mile radius of Oyler’s Beaumont apartment, generally when he couldn’t be accounted for.
A trucker identified Oyler as a person with whom he spoke at a Cabazon gas station during the first hour of the Esperanza blaze, which started around 1 a.m. The man testified that as Oyler gazed at the raging inferno, he said the
fire was behaving “just how I thought it would.”
Oyler’s cousin, Jill Frame, said he boasted about wanting to set a “mountain on fire” in the days leading up to Esperanza.
Items seized from the defendant at the time of his arrest included a slingshot with burn marks in the launch pad and a how-to guide titled “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” with references on how to make bombs.
Oyler’s Ford Taurus was seen leaving the scene of several fires in the spring and summer of 2006. The vehicle was photographed by a surveillance camera leaving an area north of Banning where a wildfire erupted moments later.
Hestrin said in his closing argument last week that Oyler was “obsessed” with starting a major fire in order to feel important.
McDonald, the defense attorney, said the charges were unfounded and that prosecutors wanted to blame his client for fires someone else started.
McDonald said because DNA extracted from cigarettes used to ignite two half-acre fires near Banning in June 2006 matched his client, Oyler was blamed for the deadly Esperanza blaze as well.
The attorney attempted to introduce evidence during the trial that a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter now facing arson and other charges in Los Angeles County could have ignited some of the fires connected to Oyler. But Judge W. Charles Morgan ruled the evidence was inadmissible.
According to McDonald, Oyler was at home with his infant daughter and fiancee on the night the Esperanza fire started.
Jurors sent a note to Morgan Thursday afternoon, asking for guidance on “how to proceed on charges on which we’ve become deadlocked.”
After reading the question aloud, Morgan turned to the jurors and encouraged them to “step back and examine the issue.”
“Step back, and it may become clearer … if you look at the totality” of the evidence, Morgan said. “You have to consider everything substantial. We’re here to help. Send us notes. Send us requests. Is that clear?”
“Yes,” the panelists answered, almost in unison. The panel went home for the night and resumed deliberating Friday morning.