RIVERSIDE- A 38-year-old serial arsonist, who lit a monster wildfire in 2006 that killed five firefighters, was sentenced to death today by a judge who said the defendant’s goal was “to create havoc” in Riverside County.
“He became more and more proficient,” Judge W. Charles Morgan said of Raymond Lee Oyler. “He knew young men and women would put their lives on the line to protect other people and property.”
In March, Oyler was convicted of killing U.S. Forest Service Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, and firefighters Pablo Cerda, 24, Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20 — all of whom perished battling the 41,000-acre Esperanza wildfire on Oct. 26, 2006.
In addition to convicting him of five counts of first-degree murder, a four-man, eight-woman jury also found Oyler guilty on 19 counts of arson and 16 counts of possessing incendiary devices.
The defendant’s attorneys submitted a written motion calling for a reduced sentence — life in prison without the possibility of parole, rather than death. But Morgan said after “evaluating the same evidence the jury heard … I found the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances.”
During the sentencing hearing, relatives of the fallen firemen told of their pain and anguish since their loved ones’ deaths.
“What you took from us can never be replaced,” said Gloria Ayala, whose son was the youngest member of USFS Engine 57. “The pain of never seeing my son again is unbearable … I hope you will find peace, hope and forgiveness after what you’ve done.”
Cecilia McLean said the death of her son bears on her mind constantly.”His memory consumes me,” she said. “I never know when something will trigger a memory of Jess.”
Josh McLean, the fireman’s brother, told the court the damage to his family was irreparable.
“I hope sincerely that you die for what you did to my brother,” McLean said, looking at Oyler, who stared blankly toward a courtroom table for much of the hourlong hearing.
McKay’s mother, Bonnie, said she was grateful Oyler will be where he can’t “hurt and kill and maim any more people.”
McKay’s grandmother, Penny, said she could be more at peace with her grandson’s death if it had been under different circumstances.
“He lost his life putting out a fire that someone started just for the fun of it, just to watch it burn,” she said.
The Esperanza wildfire was ignited just south of Cabazon in the middle of the night, during a Santa Ana windstorm, which quickly whipped the blaze into an inferno that roared into the mountain communities of Poppet Flats, Silent Valley and Twin Pines.
Fifty-four homes and other structures were destroyed, as well as vehicles. Livestock and wildlife were killed, and a highway was significantly damaged.
Along with Riverside County fire crews, firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service responded to the blaze, including the crew of Engine 57, based in Idyllwild.
Loutzenhiser and his men went into the cauldron around dawn on the morning of the fire, taking a position at the end of San Gorgonio View Road, north of Twin Pines.
The crew deployed around an octagon-shaped house that had been evacuated. According to testimony in Oyler’s two-month trial, Loutzenhiser liked the location because there appeared to be adequate brush clearance, and there was a swimming pool from which the engine could draw water when its reserves ran low.
As the men prepared to defend the property, they were caught in what one witness described as a “burn-over,” in which a wall of flame powered by high winds obliterates everything in its path.
Firefighters who came to the victims’ aid moments later described a gruesome scene. None of the Engine 57 crew members had had time to take cover, and several bodies were still burning.
Cerda and Loutzenhiser clung to life, though both had burns to more than 90 percent of their bodies, and their lungs were damaged.
Loutzenhiser died within hours of being taken off the hilltop. Cerda underwent surgery and remained in a coma for two days until his family decided to take him off life support.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin said Oyler intentionally endangered fire crews’ lives, lighting a fire in the dark of night amid furious winds, knowing full well air support would not be available.
The prosecutor said the defendant had been working up to lighting a monster fire throughout 2006, beginning with the first one- and two-acre blazes he set in mid-May of that year.
Witnesses described seeing a man of Oyler’s description or a weather-beaten Ford Taurus the defendant owned leaving the scene of a number of fires. Forensic evidence collected from cigarettes used to ignite two June 2006 fires near Banning matched Oyler’s DNA, according to testimony.
On the morning of the Esperanza blaze, a trucker recalled chatting with Oyler at a Cabazon gas station where the flames were clearly visible. The witness said Oyler told him the fire was behaving “just how I thought it would.”
Oyler denied setting any of the fires. He told a sheriff’s investigator that on the night of the Esperanza blaze, he split his time gambling at an Indian casino near Cabazon and taking care of his then-infant daughter at the family’s Beaumont apartment.
His case will be automatically appealed.
“I think his prospects are great,” said attorney Tom Eckhardt, who defended Oyler along with attorney Mark McDonald. “We are optimistic about the thoroughness of the appeals process.”