Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Esperanza fire suspect may have set 46 fires

The suspect charged with murder for setting the Esperanza fire that killed all five members of the crew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 in southern California in 2006 may have set twice as many fires as he is charged with. This information became available when a 30-page brief was filed on Monday, which spells out some of the details of the prosecution's case against Raymond Lee Oyler.

Raymond Lee Oyler, Press-Enterprise photo

He is charged with setting 23 fires, but according to the brief may have set another 23. The judge in the case, W. Charles Morgan, will decide on Friday if the jury will be allowed to hear evidence about all 46 fires.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Press-Enterprise:
Fire by fire, the document says, Oyler improved his skills as an arsonist, setting bigger and more stubborn fires with improved cigarette-and-match devices on terrain increasingly more conducive to spreading a fire.

When Oyler told cousin Jill Frame just before the Esperanza Fire that that he wanted to "burn down the mountain," he was by that time "a proficient and deadly arsonist. He was confident and even cock-sure as he arrogantly predicted that he could start a devastating fire at will," the document said.

The brief reveals background evidence, investigation details and, in the case of three fires, witnesses.

The brief analyzes the time of the fires; describes forensic evidence that matched tire tracks from Oyler's car to one fire; and includes test results that matchsticks from several fires were identical.

Only by looking at all 46 fires, prosecutors contend, will jurors "understand how the defendant taught himself the skill of using grassland fires as a weapon of mass destruction," Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin wrote in the brief.


The document also said tests showed that the wooden matches used to set several fires were chemically identical to each other and concluded they came from the same box, and some were identical to matches found in boxes taken from the home of Breazile's mother.

DNA samples from cigarette butts used for arson devices in fires on June 9 and 10, 2006, matched Oyler's DNA, prosecutors said.

The brief also reveals prosecutors have witnesses for three of the fires.


The 23 newly disclosed fires are often on the same day and near the same location as fires in the complaint against Oyler.

On Oct. 26, the day of the Esperanza Fire, prosecutors say Oyler set four fires, but is charged only with the deadly blaze that started at 1:11 a.m. Other small, quickly extinguished fires were set at 4:11 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Oyler checked into work at 7:52 a.m.

By then the Esperanza Fire was heading up the San Jacinto Mountains -- and shortly after 8 a.m. it overtook the five firefighters of Engine 57 as they defended a home near Twin Pines.

Four of the firefighters -- Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto -- died at the scene. The fifth, Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley, died Oct. 31.

The fire burned 43,000 acres and destroyed 39 homes.

The final Oct. 26 arson fire was at 5:06 p.m., about nine hours after the four firefighters' deaths. It burned less than half an acre.

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