Jury selection underway in Esperanza wildfire trial

Jury selection underway in Esperanza wildfire trial

21 January 2009

published by www.mydesert.com

USA — Jury selection will resume today in the trial of a former Beaumont mechanic who faces the death penalty if convicted of igniting a 2006 wildfire that killed five firefighters.

More than 50 potential jurors are expected to undergo screening for the panel that will sit in judgment on Raymond Lee Oyler, who is charged with setting 23 fires, including the Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza brush fire near Cabazon, which claimed the lives of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters.

Oyler’s defense team has characterized the evidence against the defendant in the Esperanza case as exceptionally weak and entirely circumstantial.

On Tuesday, the judge, prosecution and defense began questioning prospective jurors and are expected to finish by late this afternoon or tomorrow morning.

Opening statements are expected on Thursday.

According to the prosecution, between mid-May 2006 and the day of Esperanza, Oyler engaged in an “arson series,” honing his skills as a fire starter until he was a “proficient and deadly arsonist.”

“As the series progressed … the arsonist learned by trial and error; the fires became increasingly deadly and ultimately lethal,” Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin wrote in a brief to the court.

The prosecution had sought to introduce evidence that, in addition to the 23 fires with which he is charged, Oyler allegedly ignited 23 other fires in the Banning Pass throughout 2006.

Most of the fires were lit within 10 feet of a roadway, five miles from either the defendant’s Xenia Avenue apartment in Beaumont, or his parents’ house on north 8th Street in Banning, according to the brief.

Hestrin said it was necessary for the jury to hear about the uncharged fires to give the panel a better understanding of Oyler’s evolution as an alleged serial arsonist.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald argued the fires were sufficiently different, with varying types of incendiary devices being used — or sometimes none at all — to warrant keeping the additional fires out of the trial.

Judge W. Charles Morgan agreed, with the exception of two fires — a minor one near Highway 243 outside Banning in June 2006, after which a vehicle similar to Oyler’s was spotted leaving the scene, and another one within walking distance of the defendant’s Beaumont apartment.

The Esperanza blaze scorched more than 41,000 acres, destroyed 34 homes and 20 outbuildings, killed livestock and significantly damaged a highway near Cabazon.

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.

Oyler’s second cousin, Jill Frame, told investigators the defendant boasted immediately before Esperanza that he planned to “burn down a mountain,” and allegedly tried to enlist her help.

Frame said Oyler told her he wanted to set a blaze to draw authorities away from a dog pound where his two pit bulls were locked up, allowing him to sneak in.

When the defendant was arrested, investigators allegedly discovered arson implements in his Ford Taurus, including gas cans, rolls of wadded newspaper and a slingshot with burn marks in the launch pad.

McDonald has pointed to a former federal firefighter now facing arson charges in Los Angeles County as a potential arsonist in a number of the fires Oyler is accused of setting.

On Friday, McDonald will argue for Morgan to allow the defense to introduce evidence of third party culpability — specifically that Michael Karl McNeil could have set some of the fires Oyler is charged with igniting.

In the months immediately preceding Esperanza, McNeil was working as a fire prevention technician and raised suspicions because he routinely seemed to be the first person at the scene of a wildland fire — even when other fire suppression units were closer at the time it was reported, according to documents provided by the defense.

Oyler has been held without bail in Riverside County jail since his arrest.

The trial is expected to last until late March or early April.

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