USA — A man charged with setting an arson wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in 2006 started nearly two dozen additional blazes for which he hasn’t been charged, the district attorney alleges in court papers.
Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, has pleaded not guilty to five counts of first-degree murder, 17 counts of using an incendiary device and 23 counts of arson. Jury selection in the death penalty case began Monday and a panel could be seated by next week.
Prosecutor Michael Hestrin alleged in a trial brief filed this week that Oyler set 23 blazes aside from the 23 he is charged with setting. Hestrin said he planned to argue Friday before Judge W. Charles Morgan that evidence linking Oyler to those fires should be allowed at trial to prove that Oyler was a “proficient and deadly arsonist.”
The firefighters were overrun by a fierce fire as they defended a home in Twin Pines, a remote and rugged area about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The fire destroyed 39 homes and charred more than 67 square miles.
Hestrin said in his filing that there were 46 arson fires in the Banning area between May and October 2006, and that the fires abruptly stopped after Oyler was arrested that October.
There were only two gaps in fire activity over those months, according to the prosecution. The first hiatus followed an ultimatum from Oyler’s fiancee, who told him she would leave him unless he promised to stop setting fires, Hestrin wrote. The second gap followed intense media coverage of fires in the area that burned a combined 1,500 acres, or more than 2 square miles.
The 23 newly disclosed fires were often on the same day and near the same location as other fires in the complaint against Oyler.
Oyler’s defense attorney, Mark McDonald, is fighting to introduce evidence that another man was initially questioned about fires in the same area. The man, a former Forest Service arson investigator, is in custody in Los Angeles County on unrelated charges.
“We think it would help awaken jurors to the fact that, as far as who set these fires, Ray is not the only suspect,” McDonald said.