USA — The defense attorney for the man charged in the 2006 Esperanza Fire said in court Friday he is having trouble getting U.S. Forest Service witnesses to cooperate with his efforts to subpoena them.
Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, faces the death penalty if convicted of murder in the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters who were killed when the fire swept over them as they protected a home.
Attorney Mark McDonald has raised the issue that a former U.S. Forest Service arson investigator, Michael Karl McNeil, was under investigation for arson while he worked in the San Gorgonio Pass. He was in the area at the same time prosecutors said Oyler was setting fires that culminated in the Esperanza blaze.
The Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza Fire destroyed 39 homes and burned 43,000 acres of brush and timber. Oyler is charged with 45 counts, including the murder charges. Oyler, of Beaumont, has plead not guilty to all charges.
The Forest Service investigation of McNeil said he “may possibly be associated” with at least four of the fires Oyler is charged in. The report mentions the Esperanza blaze but does not directly associate McNeil with it.
McDonald is trying to get those who investigated McNeil to testify at Oyler’s upcoming trial, scheduled to begin with jury selection on Jan. 12.
The prosecutor has filed papers to block any testimony about McNeil.
“I have been getting either no return calls or instructions that the (U.S. Forest Service) will not help locate witnesses … to responses like ‘I hope your guy rots in hell; I’m not going to show up there,’ ” McDonald told Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan.
The judge commented that the lack of cooperation could cause delays in the trial.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin told Morgan that even as he tries to block McDonald from introducing McNeil into the case, he will intervene to help get witness cooperation, for the sake of keeping the case moving along.
Hestrin commented in court that federal employees can “have a different attitude toward state law enforcement.”
The opening of the trial was also moved from Jan. 5 to Jan. 12 because several witnesses might be unavailable if the trial started a week earlier.
Morgan outlined a plan in which at least 320 prospective jurors would spend the first days filling out a questionnaire that he had devised and that Hestrin and McDonald approved during the Friday hearing.
Jurors will then be questioned about their responses.
An eight-week trial has been predicted, but Hestrin said jurors should be told to prepare for a trial that could last through March.
McNeil is facing unrelated arson and terrorist-threat charges in Los Angeles County and is jailed with bail set at $2.8 million. He no longer works for the Forest Service.
Prosecutors said McNeil was considered a suspect after the Esperanza Fire, but evidence they gathered pointed to Oyler .