USA — The judge in the Esperanza arson-murder trial denied a defense request Friday to submit evidence that allegedly shows a former firefighter may have ignited some of the fires Raymond Lee Oyler is accused of setting.
A day after opening statements in Oyler’s trial, defense attorney Mark McDonald argued for permission to make a case to jurors that former U.S. Forest Service fire prevention technician Michael Karl McNeil, now facing arson-related charges in Los Angeles County, may be responsible for wildfires in the Banning Pass leading up to the October 2006 Esperanza blaze.
For more than an hour Friday out of the presence of the jury, which had retired for the weekend, McDonald questioned former Forest Service arson investigator Ron Huxman about his dealings with McNeil.
Huxman recalled that in May 2006 his suspicions about the firefighter were raised after McNeil e-mailed him photographs of incendiary devices thought to have been used to ignite several fires in the Banning area.
McNeil worked out of a ranger station in the San Bernardino National Forest and was assigned to patrol fire-prone areas not investigate arsons, Huxman said.
As the fire season progressed, unexplained wildfires, typically three acres or less, flared up, and McNeil’s relationship to the incidents drew more attention, Huxman testified.
He was reporting fires to dispatch and was the first to arrive at these fires, the investigator said.
Isn’t it rare for a fireman to be the person discovering a fire? McDonald asked.
It’s rare, yes, Huxman replied.
He said that in mid-June, McNeil told him that if investigators wanted to know how several recent wildfires had started, they should come and talk to me.
Huxman identified 19 fires in central and southwest Riverside County that might be connected to McNeil. Oyler is charged with setting five of those fires.
McNeil was promoted and transferred out of the San Bernardino National Forest in 2007. Huxman retired soon after, but the investigation continued.
McNeil, 35, is jailed in Los Angeles, where he’s being held in lieu of $2.88 million bail, facing charges of arson and making terrorist threats against public officials.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan ruled there were insufficient grounds to allow allegations against McNeil into the Oyler trial.
McDonald would not comment on the ruling.
Oyler is charged with five counts of first-degree murder in connection with the Esperanza fire. He’s also charged with multiple counts of arson and possessing destructive devices, and could be sentenced to the death penalty if convicted.
In his opening statement Thursday, Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin told jurors the 38-year-old defendant was a man bent on destruction when he lit the Esperanza blaze and 22 other fires in the Banning Pass.
The Oct. 26, 2006, the Esperanza fire killed five USFS firefighters, scorched more than 41,000 acres, destroyed 34 homes and 20 outbuildings, killed livestock and damaged a highway.
According to the prosecution, the defendant engaged in an arson series over six months, culminating in the Esperanza fire.
During that time, Oyler perfected his skills, experimenting with different incendiary devices and different types of terrain, according to Hestrin.
In May and June of 2006, most of the fires were small, usually not more than an acre. During an investigation of two half-acre fires near Banning in June, authorities recovered Marlboro cigarettes that were part of the incendiary devices used at both blazes, Hestrin said.
DNA gleaned from the cigarettes was forensically connected to Oyler, according to Hestrin, who said wood stick matches also recovered at the scene chemically matched ones found in the defendant’s in-laws’ house.
On Oct. 22, 2006, a surveillance camera set up in a remote location on Bluff Street in Banning, specifically to catch suspicious activity, snapped a photo of Oyler’s vehicle and license plate coming and going minutes before and after a 60-acre blaze was set, the prosecutor said.
A man and his dog
Less than an hour after the Esperanza blaze erupted, a witness spoke with a man he later identified as Oyler loitering near the pumps at a Shell gas station in Cabazon, watching the fire grow, according to Hestrin.
The witness recalled the man saying, The fire is acting just how I thought it would, Hestrin said.
Oyler’s second cousin, Jill Frame, told investigators the defendant boasted immediately before Esperanza that he planned to burn down a mountain, and tried to enlist her help, according to the prosecution.
Frame said Oyler told her he wanted to set a blaze to draw authorities away from a dog pound where his pit bull was locked up for biting someone.
Hestrin said the defendant theorized he could set the fire to divert authorities, allowing him to get into the pound and free his dog.
In his opening statement, McDonald told jurors he expected they would have their own serious doubts about Jill Frame’s story once she testifies.
McDonald questioned her motives, saying she only contacted authorities after learning of a $500,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for igniting the Esperanza blaze.
The attorney dismissed the idea that Oyler wanted to start a fire to break his dog out of a pound because it had been released back to him the day before.
McDonald acknowledged that Oyler’s DNA was extracted from cigarettes left at two June 2006 fires, but emphasized no links between Oyler and the 21 other blazes the defendant is accused of setting, including Esperanza.
The devices used to ignite the June 9 and 10 blazes in Banning cigarettes with a half-dozen matches laid loosely over them were different from the device used in the Esperanza fire, which consisted of a cigarette bound by a rubberband or tape to six or seven matches.
The defense spotlighted that as a key point and weakness in the prosecution’s case.
McDonald also said Oyler had no access to a car to make the roughly 10-mile trek to Cabazon on the night of Esperanza, and that Oyler was at home, caring for his and his fiancee’s then-6-month-old baby.
Maybe the evidence will never show who started Esperanza, McDonald told jurors.
The trial, which resumes Monday, is expected to go into the first part of April.
Oyler has been held without bail in Riverside County Jail since his arrest.