California — Prosecutors who charged a man with setting a wildfire thatkilled five firefighters say they have overwhelming evidence against him,despite the difficulty of proving arson cases.
The attorney for Raymond Lee Oyler, however, insists his client has an “airtightalibi” for the night the blaze was set and points out that prosecutorshaven’t made public any evidence directly linking him to the fire.
Attorneys watching the case say it’s unusual for the district attorney’soffice to be so adamant about its case so early in the prosecution, particularlyin an arson investigation. Arsons are challenging to prove because evidenceoften burns and suspects can be miles away creating an alibi by the time anyonenotices flames.
“It’s unusual for a DA to speak in such absolute terms,” said SteveHarmon, a Riverside defense attorney who’s handled arson cases. “I’ve heard,’We have a strong case’ or ‘We are building a strong case,’ but never ‘overwhelming.”‘
Within hours of its start on Oct. 26, the Esperanza Fire killed five members ofSan Bernardino National Forest’s Engine 57. It also destroyed dozens of homes inthe region 90 miles east of Los Angeles.
Oyler, 36, is charged with multiple counts of murder and arson and could receivethe death penalty if convicted. He also is charged with starting 10 other firesin the same area since June. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
His attorney, Mark McDonald, said media attention and anger generated by thefire prompted prosecutors to rush their arrest. They ended up with the wrongman, he said.
The night the fire was set, Oyler was home caring for his 7-month-old baby anddidn’t have access to a car, McDonald said. Oyler’s girlfriend and sister and alog of phone calls made on a landline from his apartment support that alibi, hesaid.
Prosecutors declined to comment on the case, and have revealed little evidence.
But from what’s been disclosed so far, legal experts say prosecutors appear tobe methodically building a case, using evidence from other fires in which Oyleris charged that share characteristics with the Esperanza blaze.
A police report obtained by The Associated Press and a bail affidavit revealinvestigators recovered almost identical incendiary devices at the scene of 10of the 11 fires, including the Esperanza Fire.
Secret cameras atop utility poles caught images of Oyler’s car leaving the sceneof the 11th fire, which was set by a “hand-held open flame device,”the report said. It also said Oyler told investigators he drove to a spot nearwhere the fire started on the night it was set to watch the flames.
At 10 of the fires, investigators recovered remains of incendiary devices: fiveto seven paper or wood matches wrapped around a cigarette using duct tape or arubber band. The arsonist lit the cigarette, which slowly burned down until itreached the matches and ignited them, sparking a brush fire. The device allows atime delay of up to 11 minutes that arsonists can use to escape and create analibi.
Investigators recovered DNA from cigarette butts found at the June 9 and June 10arsons. Those samples matched Oyler’s genetic profile, according to thedocuments.
Thomas Fee, president of the International Association of Arson Investigators,said the DNA evidence could be key to linking Oyler to the other blazes. ThatDNA allows prosecutors to focus on the similarities between thecigarette-and-match devices used at the June blazes and the one used at theEsperanza Fire.
The way the incendiary devices were constructed can be used to show that thesame person crafted them all — a so-called “arsonist’s signature,”said Fee, who isn’t involved in the Oyler case. The signature can be as subtleas the location of the matches on the cigarette’s stem or more obvious, such asthe brand of cigarette used, he said.
Prosecutors have used similarities between incendiary devices to solve at leastone other high-profile arson spree. In that case, a California arsoninvestigator named John Orr was sentenced to life in prison without parole forthe 1984 killings of four people in one of multiple arsons set over the courseof years.
Fee said investigators found a fingerprint on the paper used in one device andlinked Orr to other fires by proving he had used the same paper in some of theother devices. Investigators used that evidence to obtain search warrants forOrr’s house, where they found videos of the fires taken before fire crewsarrived and a manuscript that included details about the blazes that onlyinvestigators knew.
Peter Gianinni, a defense attorney who represented Orr in the death penaltyphase of his trial, said linking an arsonist to a blaze relying only on the”signature” of an incendiary device isn’t enough.
“They come up with all kinds of things that they claim are unique becausethe whole idea is to establish the uniqueness of the device,” he said.”But I don’t think it’s enough.”
So far, prosecutors haven’t indicated they have such powerful evidence in theOyler case. Legal experts, however, say the evidence that has been disclosed sofar shows they may be off to a good start.
“I am very reluctant to draw any inference about the weaknesses in theircase from the fact that they are being quiet about it,” said RobertWeisberg, director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at StanfordUniversity. “They’re inviting this kind of skepticism about the strength oftheir case, but there are situations like this where it turns out they have afabulous case.”