Judge Confirms Death Sentence for Arsonist in 2003 Old Fire

Five men suffered heart-attack related deaths as they evacuated during the 2003 Old Fire, which burned 91,000 acres in the San Bernardino Mountains

By Jonathan Lloyd and Jacob Rascon
|  Monday, Jan 28, 2013  |  Updated 10:10 PM PDT
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Rickie Lee Fowler was convicted on five charges of first degree murder and two counts of arson related to the 2003 Old Fire in San Bernardino. On Monday a judge upheld the recommendation of the jury that Fowler be put to death, a move that victims' family members say finally closes a painful chapter in their lives. Jacob Rascon reports from the San Bernardino Mountains for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2013.

Jacob Rascon

Rickie Lee Fowler was convicted on five charges of first degree murder and two counts of arson related to the 2003 Old Fire in San Bernardino. On Monday a judge upheld the recommendation of the jury that Fowler be put to death, a move that victims' family members say finally closes a painful chapter in their lives. Jacob Rascon reports from the San Bernardino Mountains for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2013.

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The arsonist convicted on five first-degree murder counts in connection with the deadly 2003 Old Fire above San Bernardino was sentenced Monday to death.

Judge Michael Smith confirmed the sentence, recommended by a jury in September, for Rickie Lee Fowler. The judge had the option of life in state prison without possibility of parole.

Five men died after heart attacks suffered during evacuations forced by the 91,000-acre fire. Fowler was convicted in August on the murder counts and two arson counts.

The Old Fire was one of several wildfires that burned in California in October 2003. Fowler fell under suspicion when witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a van toss burning objects into dry brush. Investigators interviewed Fowler several months after the fire, but did not have enough evidence to file charges until six years after the blaze.

Fowler was already in prison on a burglary conviction at the time charges were filed. The van's driver was later shot and killed in an unrelated incident.

The Old Fire also damaged more than 1,000 homes.

"Today, after nearly ten years, justice has now been secured for the victims and their families, and those whose lives were affected by the actions of Rickie Lee Fowler," said San Bernardino District Attorney Michael Ramos.

Family members of the victims made impact statements before Judge Smith announced the sentence. Robert Taylor's daughter cried as she spoke about what she misses since her father died.

"I miss Sunday family dinners, the smell of freshly-cut wood in the garage, waking up on the weekend to go to work with my dad," she said.

"It was due to stress of losing everything he ever worked for, and he was a hard-working man," said Laura Taylor.

Several family members shared the same sentiment that nine years after the fire, they are just glad the legal battle is over.

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