USA — The first round of jury selection is slated to begin Monday morning in the trial of a Beaumont man charged with igniting a deadly 2006 wildfire in Riverside County that claimed the lives of five firefighters.
Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, could face the death penalty if convicted of setting the Esperanza wildfire. Oyler faces five counts of first-degree murder, 38 counts of arson, and being in possession of incendiary devices.
Prosecutors allege that, in addition to the Esperanza blaze, Oyler ignited 22 other fires in central and western Riverside County throughout 2006.
Next week, some 320 prospective jurors are expected to be summoned to Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan’s courtroom. Most will be weeded out through questionnaires concerning their knowledge of the Oyler case, and the rest will be screened by the prosecution and defense until a dozen jurors and at least two alternates are selected.
Last month, Morgan predicted jury selection would wrap up by Jan. 21 or 22, with opening statements on one of those days or a day or two later.
The trial could last to the end of March. Morgan has so far denied television stations’ requests to film or videotape proceedings.
The judge set a Jan. 16 hearing on defense attorney Mark McDonald’s motion to introduce evidence that he says shows a former U.S. Forest Service employee could have been responsible for setting several of the fires his client is charged with igniting.
Michael Karl McNeil, 35, is facing charges related to an alleged arson blaze in Los Angeles County, and was one of the suspects Riverside County sheriff’s investigators zeroed in on following the Esperanza fire and before Oyler’s Nov. 2 arrest.
The Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza blaze scorched more than 40,000 acres, destroyed 34 homes and 20 outbuildings, killed livestock and significantly damaged a highway near Cabazon.
A five-man U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew, known as Engine 57, joined the battle against the wildfire as it roared up hillsides north of the small community of Twin Pines.
Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, along with crew members Pablo Cerda, 24, Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, died when the flames swept over a house they were trying to defend.
During Oyler’s preliminary hearing in March 2007, a state crime technician testified that the defendant’s DNA was identified on cigarettes left at the scene of two arson fires near Banning in June 2006.
The defendant’s second cousin, Jill Frame, testified that a few days before Esperanza, Oyler talked openly about setting a fire near Idyllwild to create a diversion that would allow him to sneak in and free his two pit bull dogs from an animal shelter.
When the defendant was arrested, investigators discovered alleged arson implements in his Ford Taurus, including gas cans, rolls of wadded newspaper and a slingshot with burn marks in the launchpad.
Oyler has served time in county jail and prison, most recently for a 2001 drug-possession conviction.
McDonald argued in November that Oyler could not receive a fair trial in Riverside County because of a “lynch mob atmosphere.” However, Morgan denied the attorney’s request to move the trial elsewhere, once the prosecution established that only 16 percent of respondents to a survey about the case could recall Oyler’s name.
McDonald has characterized the evidence against his client in the Esperanza case as exceptionally weak and said in November he thought Oyler has “a great shot at being acquitted.”
The defendant has been held without bail in Riverside County jail since his arrest.