RIVERSIDE- The 15-year-old sister of a firefighter killed in the deadly Esperanza wildfire testified Thursday in the sentencing phase of the arsonist’s trial that she will always miss her brother.
“He always made me smile,” said Monica Hoover-Ayala, the sister of Daniel Hoover-Najera. “He teased me a lot but I loved it … He was my big brother. I always looked up to him. I still do.”
Daniel Hoover-Najera died at age 20 when flames from the wildfire swept over him and four fellow U.S. Forest Service firefighters on Oct. 26, 2006. The crew of Engine 57 was one of several sent to a hilltop community north of Twin Pines to evacuate and defend homes in the first hours of the Esperanza blaze.
Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, of Beaumont, was convicted last week of five counts of first-degree murder in connection with the 41,000-acre blaze. A jury is deciding whether to recommend death or life in prison for the defendant.
Wednesday and today, prosecutors had relatives and friends of all five of the fallen firemen testify so jurors could hear about their lives and careers.
Hoover-Najera was a seasonal firefighter in his second year on the job with the Forest Service. His girlfriend, Whitney Christine Lingafelter, said being a firefighter was his lifelong desire.
“He achieved the goals he set out to do,” Lingafelter testified. “If he said he was going to do something, he did it.”
She described the San Jacinto man as respectful and the kind to treat everybody fairly. According to Lingafelter, Hoover-Najera looked up to the senior members of Engine 57, particularly his captain, 43-year-old Mark Allen Loutzenhiser.
Lingafelter said her world changed forever when her boyfriend of three years died.
“He was my best friend, my other half. We did everything together,” she said.
When Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin displayed a picture of the witness and her boyfriend together at Magic Mountain, she nearly broke down in tears.
A Forest Service battalion chief testified Tuesday that when he and fellow firefighters found Hoover-Najera’s remains, they were still smoldering.
Along with Hoover-Najera and Loutzenhiser, firefighters Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, and Pablo Cerda, 24, died of their injuries in the Esperanza fire.
Oyler lit the blaze near Cabazon in the middle of the night, during a Santa Ana windstorm. It raged for several days, damaging or destroying 54 homes and other structures in the mountain communities of Poppet Flats, Silent Valley and Twin Pines.
Oyler was also convicted of three dozen counts of arson and possessing incendiary devices connected to 19 other fires in the Banning Pass between May and October 2006.
The defense argued that someone else started many of the fires for which Oyler was blamed, pointing to the variety of cigarette-and-match devices used to ignite the blazes.
The penalty phase of the defendant’s trial was suspended Tuesday when attorneys Mark McDonald and Tom Eckhardt notified Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan that Oyler was behaving irrationally.
The defendant could be seen fidgeting, and his attorneys indicated they were having difficulty communicating with him.
Morgan ordered a psychological exam, then ruled Oyler did not require psychiatric care and proceeded with the penalty trial.
On Monday, relatives of firefighter Pablo Cerda are expected to testify.
The defense is expected to call its first witnesses Tuesday or Wednesday.