RIVERSIDE- Jurors Wednesday recommended the death penalty for a Beaumont man convicted of killing five firefighters who died battling the massive Esperanza wildfire that he ignited in the fall of 2006.
The four-man, eight-woman panel deliberated about a day before returning the sentencing recommendation for onetime mechanic Raymond Lee Oyler.
Judges have the option of rejecting a jury’s death recommendation and imposing life in prison without parole, but rarely do so.
Oyler, 38, was convicted March 6 of five counts of first-degree murder and arson for setting the Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza wildfire, which swept over a U.S. Forest Service firefighting team trying to defend a home on a remote hilltop.
The defendant 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 of that year.
“He devoted a chunk of his life to bringing destruction, chaos and misery to people’s lives,” Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin told the jury in his closing statement in the trial’s penalty phase.
“He chose his path for selfish reasons,” Hestrin said Monday. “Nothing was thrust upon him. He chose what he did because he got a thrill from it… He wanted to feel all-powerful, if only for a moment.”
The prosecutor recalled the ultimate sacrifice of the five members of Idyllwild-based U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew Engine 57, referring to the victims — Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, and firefighters Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, and Pablo Cerda, 24 — as heroes.
“Raymond Oyler gave these men the death penalty that day, by his actions alone,” Hestrin said. “Is it right that he shouldn’t get the same?
The enormity of the crime — to say that it warrants death is an affirmation of life and what we hold dear and true.”
Defense attorney Tom Eckhardt acknowledged Oyler was a serial arsonist whose “luck ran out when five people died.” But the attorney maintained his client did not intend to commit murder when he ignited the Esperanza wildfire, and the result would have been the same if lightning or a downed electrical line had sparked the blaze that night, given the high winds and bone-dry brush.
Eckhardt had argued that life in prison without the possibility of parole would be the most appropriate punishment for Oyler.
“Prison is bleak… Ray Oyler is going to die in prison. That’s the reality. How much are we ahead in killing Ray Oyler? Please don’t kill him. It’s not necessary.”
The Engine 57 crew deployed less than six hours after the Esperanza blaze started.
The wind-whipped fire raged into the mountain communities of Poppet Flats, Silent Valley and Twin Pines, scorching 41,000 acres and damaging or destroying 54 homes and other structures.
Engine 57 crew members tried to defend an evacuated octagon-shaped house at the end of Gorgonio View Road. USFS Battalion Chief Chris Fogle testified that Loutzenhiser positioned his men at the home because there was adequate brush clearance, making it defensible, and a pool where the engine could replenish its water reserves.
The doomed crew was caught in what Fogle described as a “burn-over,” in which flames raced up a hillside and swept over the victims before they could take cover.
Oyler lit the Esperanza wildfire on the southern edge of Cabazon about 1 a.m., during a Santa Ana windstorm. Hestrin argued the defendant knew there would be no air support in the middle of the night to assist fire crews on the ground.
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.