Arsonist Guilty of Murder in October 2003 Old Fire Heart-Attack Deaths

Rickie Fowler was convicted of murder in the deaths of five men who suffered fatal heart attacks as they rushed to evacuate

By Jonathan Lloyd
|  Wednesday, Aug 15, 2012  |  Updated 1:58 PM PDT
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Rickie Fowler in a San Bernardino courtroom.

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A jury has found a California man guilty of murdering five people who had fatal heart attacks after he deliberately started a blaze that grew into the 91,000-acre Old fire in 2003.

Jurors in San Bernardino on Wednesday found 30-year-old Rickie Fowler guilty of setting the fire in the foothills above San Bernardino. The fire burned for nine days and destroyed 1,000 buildings.

Prosecutors charged Fowler with the murders of five men who died from heart attacks after their homes burned. The men suffered the heart attacks as they rushed to evacuate the area.

He also was convicted on two arson counts and  special circumstances that make him eligible for the death penalty. That phase of the proceedings is scheduled to begin Monday.

Fowler fell under suspicion when witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a van tossing 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 fire.

At the time charges were filed, Fowler was already in jail serving time for a burglary conviction.

The Old Fire was one of several wildfires that burned in California during October 2003.

During the trial, defense attorneys argued that prosecutors focused on Fowler to the exclusion of other evidence. They cited witness discrepancies regarding the descriptions of the van see at the fire's ignition point.

Prosecutors told the jury Fowler gave them a note in 2008 in which he acknowledged he was present when the fire began and intended to start the fire before a friend started it. During jailhouse interviews, Fowler denied that he threw a road flare into brush.

The van's driver was later shot and killed in an unrelated incident.

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