RIVERSIDE – A former Beaumont mechanic who ignited a deadly 2006 wildfire does not need psychiatric care, a Riverside County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday, whichcleared the way for the penalty phase of the defendant’s trial to resume.
After reviewing a psychological assessment of Raymond Lee Oyler, Judge W. Charles Morgan said it was obvious the defendant is experiencing a “bad time in his life.” But nothing in Dr. Robert Suiter’s evaluation indicated Oyler needed to undergo treatment, the judge said.
“Mr. Oyler’s in a place he doesn’t want to be,” Morgan said. “This is an anxious time in his life. It’s not a good thing. But we will carry on with the penalty phase.”
Morgan called a halt to the penalty trial Tuesday morning, less than two hours after it began, when Oyler’s attorneys said their client was not behaving rationally. Oyler could be seen fidgeting and appeared distracted. His attorneys also said there was a communication problem.
Attorney Tom Eckhardt worried that Oyler had suffered an epileptic seizure over the weekend that partially incapacitated him. Oyler’s family has a history of epilepsy, Eckhardt said.
Morgan sealed the findings in Suiter’s 12-page report on the defendant. Attorney Mark McDonald told the judge this morning that Oyler’s behavior had not changed, and he preferred Oyler “not be present during further testimony.”
“He’s doing the same things he did yesterday, making it hard for me to do what I need to do in his behalf,” McDonald said. “My request is based on the best chance for a fair outcome. His behavior is compromising that.”
Morgan said he noticed Oyler was a “bit jerky.”
“But I am loathe to have him absent unless his conduct merits it,” the judge said.
Jurors were scheduled to return at 1:30 p.m. to hear further testimony.
At the conclusion of the trial — expected in about two weeks — the jury will decide whether to recommend a death sentence or life in prison without parole for Oyler.
The four-man, eight-woman jury convicted him Friday of five counts of first-degree murder in connection with the Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza wildfire, which killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters.
The 38-year-old defendant was also convicted of three dozen counts of arson and possessing incendiary devices.
The 41,000-acre Esperanza blaze began on the southern edge of Cabazon and roared into the mountain communities of Poppet Flats, Silent Valley and Twin Pines, damaging or destroying 54 homes and other structures.
Among the engine crews dispatched to evacuate and defend properties on a remote hilltop community north of Twin Pines was Engine 57, comprised of USFS firefighters Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, and Pablo Cerda, 24.
The men were overwhelmed by flames as they tried to defend an empty octagonal home at the end of a road. All but Loutzenhiser and Cerda died at the scene.
U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Chris Fogle was among the first firefighters to discover the bodies of the fallen firemen.
Fogle testified Tuesday that his crew was a quarter-mile from the house where Engine 57 had deployed. He said wind-driven flames raced through a ravine in seconds and “up and over the house” where his longtime friend, Loutzenhiser, and the other doomed crew members stood.
He said Cerda was the first victim he located.
“He was pretty bad, hard to recognize,” Fogle said, choking back tears.
“Was he conscious?” Hestrin asked.
“Pablo moved an arm,” Fogle said.
Fogle said that as his fellow crew members were providing Cerda medical assistance, he rushed over to where Loutzenhiser was found.
“He was laying on his back, (charred) arms sticking straight up,” Fogle recalled. “I grabbed his hand and told him I was there and everything would be OK. He tried to respond back, but I couldn’t make out what he said.”
Hoover-Najera’s and McLean’s bodies, charred and disfigured, were still burning when Fogle found them, he testified.
He said firefighters at the scene poured water on the bodies to douse the flames.
The prosecution displayed photos of the men’s remains, sending several family members fleeing into the hallway, sobbing.
Loutzenhiser remained alive for a short time after rescuers reached him. Cerda remained in a coma until his family decided to remove him from life support two days later. The other members of the crew were pronounced dead at the scene.
The defense did not make an opening statement Tuesday at the outset of the penalty trial.