A jury convicted an auto mechanic Friday of murdering five federal firefighters by setting a wildfire that overran them as they defended a home in a rural Southern California mountain community.
Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, was found guilty of five counts of first-degree murder with special enhancements for multiple murder and murder during a felonyarson. He could face the death penalty in a trial phase beginning Tuesday.
Relatives of the victims and the defendant sobbed as the verdicts were read in a packed courtroom in Riverside County Superior Court.
Oyler was also found guilty of 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device. The jury deadlocked on three arson counts, and Judge W. Charles Morgan declared a mistrial on those charges.
John R. Hawkins, Riverside County fire chief, told reporters outside the courthouse that he hoped the verdict would console the families of the firefighters killed in the blaze.
“They can rest now knowing that the man responsible will pay for his actions and no one else will suffer as they have,” Hawkins said.
The verdicts followed a monthlong trial with testimony by arson investigators, fire experts and several of Oyler’s relatives.
The fatal blaze, now known as the Esperanza Fire, roared to life as fierce Santa Ana winds swept through valleys and mountains in the inland region 90 miles east of Los Angeles.
The crew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 was overwhelmed after deploying to protect an unoccupied house perched at the top of a steep drainage in the San Jacinto Mountains. Three firefighters died there and a fourth died soon after at a hospital. The fifth died five days later, the same day Oyler was arrested.
Some 10,000 people attended the memorial service for Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, and Pablo Cerda, 23.
Relatives of the victims and Oyler’s family declined to comment outside the courthouse.
“We still feel this loss and we always will,” said Jeanne Wade Evans, supervisor for San Bernardino National Forest.
Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco said he was pleased with the verdict and that it was unlikely that the three deadlocked charges would be pursued since Oyler already faces at least a life sentence without parole.
Messages seeking comment were left by The Associated Press for defense attorney Mark McDonald.
The fires Oyler was charged with spanned a period from May 16, 2006, to the Esperanza Fire on Oct. 26, 2006. All were set in rural Riverside County.
Much of the trial focused on differences in the types of incendiary devices found at various fires. Arson investigators recovered everything from simple paper matches to a “layover” that consisted of matches balanced on a single cigarette and more elaborate devices made up of wooden matches grouped around a cigarette and secured with duct tape or a rubber band.
Oyler’s DNA was found on “layover” devices used to start two fires in June, but not on ones recovered at other fires.
Prosecutor Michael Hestrin told jurors that the variations in the devices showed that Oyler was experimenting with different designs and learning from his mistakes. Hestrin pointed out that the first fires died down almost immediately, but as time went on the blazes covered more and more acreage. Arsons just prior to the Esperanza Fire burned more than 2 square miles of land and the fatal fire charred 70 square miles of terrain.
McDonald told jurors in his closing argument that his client likely started 11 of the 23 firesbut not the fatal one.
He said changes in the design of the incendiary devices indicated more than one arsonist and he presented a DNA expert who said she found partial genetic material from another unknown male on a device similar to the one used to start the Esperanza Fire.
The fatal blaze began on a hillside in the town of Cabazon and spread quickly from a valley floor up the north side of the mountains to the widely dispersed rural community of Twin Pines. The blaze destroyed 34 homes and 20 outbuildings.
Richard Gearhart, a battalion chief with the U.S. Forest Service, welcomed the verdict but said it didn’t bring back his friend of 25 years, Loutzenhiser, or the other four colleagues.
“I miss Mark,” Gearhart said, his voice cracking. “I wish they were still around.”