Convicted Arsonist Faces Death Penalty

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Los Angeles—A convicted arsonist who set a Southern California wildfire that killed five firefighters has been sentenced to death.

Raymond Lee Oyler, charged with five counts of first-degree murder after having set an October 2006 fire, was convicted in March. The blaze, which began on a hillside near Cabazon, 90 miles east of Los Angeles, spread quickly up the north side of the mountain and into the community of Twin Pines. It was known as the Esperanza fire, and it destroyed 34 homes and 20 other structures.

The firefighters, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service Engine 57, were overtaken by the fire as they tried to save an unoccupied hilltop home. Three of the five died at the scene, one died later at a hospital, and the fifth succumbed five days later.

At the time of the initial deaths, the firefighters were battling 70-foot flames and temperatures topping out at 1,300 degrees. The blaze also charred nearly 70 square miles of land.

Oyler was additionally convicted of 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device, for a number of fires that occurred in the area.

The judge in the case, Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan, spoke about his ruling. “In particular, Mr. Oyler set on a mission … to wreak havoc in this county by setting fires by his own design for his own purposes,” stated Morgan. “He knew that young men and woman would put their lives on the line to protect other people and property and he continued anyway.”

The firefighters who were killed during the conflagration were Jason McKay, 27; Jess McClean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; and Pablo Cerda, 23. A memorial service held for the men drew 10,000 people.

Relatives of the men attended the sentencing hearing and addressed the court. Said Josh McClean, “The damage done to our family can never be repaired. He stole something from us that he cannot repay. To sit in the courtroom and watch the defendant smile and wave to his family, that’s something we no longer have the opportunity to do.”

Evidence and witnesses from the scene of the firefighters’ death said that footprints, in addition to dropped gear, indicate that at least one firefighters attempted to run away from the fire, and was able to flee for 30 seconds before being overcome.

 

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