Esperanza Fire suspect set 46 blazes, district attorney contends

Esperanza Fire suspect set 46 blazes, district attorney contends

13 January 2009

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USA — Raymond Lee Oyler set twice as many fires as he is charged with, including several on the day of the October 2006 Esperanza Fire that fatally burned five U.S. Forest Service firefighters, prosecutors claim in court documents.

Jury selection began this week in the death-penalty case against Oyler, 38. The onetime Beaumont mechanic is charged with 45 counts, including five murder charges. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

A 30-page trial brief filed late Monday outlines the prosecution’s case against Oyler and reveals some of the support for the charges.

Oyler is formally charged with setting 23 fires, and the brief says there is evidence he set another 23.

Prosecutors say jurors should hear about the additional fires and the details behind them to complete their case against Oyler.

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.

Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan will hear arguments Friday on whether to let jurors hear about the additional fires.

Hestrin declined comment Tuesday.

Oyler defense attorney Mark McDonald also declined comment. He has said Oyler is innocent and has an alibi for the early morning hours of Oct. 26 when the Esperanza Fire started.

McDonald has his own motion before Morgan to admit into trial testimony about a possible firefighter arsonist under investigation during summer 2006 while on assignment in the same San Gorgonio Pass area where Oyler allegedly set his fires.

Gathering Evidence

Prosecutors matched the timing of the fires to Oyler’s work hours as a mechanic and his personal life.

Not a single arson fire in the entire series occurred while the defendant was clocked into work. Conversely, when the defendant was not at work, the arsonist was active again,” the document said.

The brief notes there were no arson fires in the San Gorgonio Pass from July 9 to Sept. 16, 2006, and again from Sept. 17 to Oct. 22, 2006.

The gap beginning in July corresponds to when Oyler’s fiancee Crystal Breazile testified that she delivered an ultimatum to Oyler.

She said she would leave Oyler after the defendant saw television news coverage of a blaze near Moreno Valley that closed Highway 60. Oyler claimed he had “started that one.” The testimony came during Oyler’s 2007 preliminary hearing.

“It is a logical inference that the six-week gap in arsons was the defendant attempting to keep his promise to Crystal to refrain from setting any more arson fires after the ultimatum,” the brief claimed.

The shorter September-October gap came after two more large arson fires received intense local news media coverage, the brief said.

The legal brief also matches the fires to where Oyler either lived or frequented, including his parents’ home in Banning and his apartment in Beaumont.

One fire was started across the street from the Beaumont apartment.

“More than 80 percent of all the fires in the series occurred within a 5-mile radius of the defendant’s apartment or the home of the defendant’s parents, where he spent a considerable amount of time,” the brief states.

It notes that the San Gorgonio Pass covers more than 250 square miles.

“It is simply implausible that an innocent Raymond Lee Oyler is merely the victim of chance with so many arson fires set so close to where he lives and spends time,” the brief says.

Oyler’s defense attorneys are seeking admission of evidence that a U.S. Forest Service arson investigator also was under suspicion of setting fires in the same San Gorgonio Pass area during the same period.

They say Michael Karl McNeil, currently in Los Angeles County custody on unrelated arson and terrorist threat charges, is a suspect in at least five of the fires that Oyler is charged with setting. A confidential U.S. Forest Service report on McNeil mentions the Esperanza Fire but does not conclusively link him to it.

Morgan will hear arguments on Jan. 23 on whether to admit the McNeil material.

DNA, Witnesses

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.

In one blaze from June 11, 2006, at Highway 243 and Mt. Edna Road near Banning, John Lawrence witnessed a car driving fast away from the scene. He later identified from photos Oyler’s 1986 Ford Taurus and Oyler as the man he saw driving the car.

Ron McKay noticed on June 14, 2006, a badly oxidized Ford Taurus driving on Old Banning Idyllwild Road and San Gorgonio Avenue near Banning just minutes before McKay saw a plume of smoke from a field of nearby grass.

McKay later identified Oyler’s car.

At the scene of that fire, state Department of Justice investigators photographed tire tread impressions. They matched impressions taken from Oyler’s Taurus.

At a June 28, 2006, fire at Winesap Avenue and Orchard Place near Cherry Valley, witness Deeann Noland noticed a sedan driving near her property just after she smelled smoke and noticed a plume. She later identified Oyler’s Taurus by make, model and color, the brief states.

Oyler’s Taurus also was caught by a hidden camera as the only vehicle that drove to and from the area of a fire on Oct. 22 at Mias Canyon Road and Bluff Street. The brief also noted Oyler didn’t work that day.

New 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.

Oyler had punched out of work at 4:30 p.m., the brief said.

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