Guilty: Oyler Convicted in Deaths of 5 Firefighters

Jurors announced guilty verdicts Friday on five murder counts in the case of a man accused of setting 23 Riverside County brush fires, including one that killed five firefighters.

The four-man, eight-woman panel weighing Raymond Lee Oyler's fate was brought into court at 1:30 p.m. Friday.

Jurors initially announced they were deadlocked on three counts. They returned to the courtroom to announce they had reached a guilty verdict on five murder counts.

The penalty phase of the case is expected to begin Tuesday morning.

At least a dozen current and retired fire personnel filled the left side of the courtroom. They were seated directly behind relatives of the five fallen USFS crew members.

Oyler, 38, faces a possible death sentence for causing the blaze that killed Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, and firefighters Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, and Pablo Cerda, 24, who were overcome by flames while defending a home near Twin Pines.

The jury also convicted Oyler of 37 other arson-related counts.

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Oyler was charged with five counts of first-degree murder, 23 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device for fires set between May 16, 2006 and Oct. 26, 2006.

Fire Crew Overrun by Blaze

The crew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 was overrun by the October Esperanza fire while defending an isolated home in the San Jacinto Mountains, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

The Esperanza wildfire scorched more than 41,000 acres near Cabazon, damaged or destroyed 54 homes and other structures and killed the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57.

Loutzenhiser, McKay, McLean and Hoover-Najera perished when flames swept over the home they were trying to defend. Cerda died at a hospital a few days later.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin said just about all the fires occurred within a 10-mile radius of Oyler's Beaumont apartment, generally when he couldn't be accounted for.

A trucker identified Oyler as a person with whom he spoke at a Cabazon gas station during the first hour of the Esperanza blaze, which started around 1 a.m. The man testified that as Oyler gazed at the raging inferno, he said the fire was behaving "just how I thought it would."

Oyler's cousin, Jill Frame, said he boasted about wanting to set a "mountain on fire" in the days leading up to Esperanza.

Items seized from the defendant at the time of his arrest included a slingshot with burn marks in the launch pad and a how-to guide titled "The Anarchist's Cookbook," with references on how to make bombs.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald said the charges were unfounded and that prosecutors wanted to blame his client for fires someone else started.

McDonald said because DNA extracted from cigarettes used to ignite two half-acre fires near Banning in June 2006 matched his client, Oyler was blamed for the deadly Esperanza blaze as well.

The attorney attempted to introduce evidence during the trial that a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter now facing arson and other charges in Los Angeles County could have ignited some of the fires connected to Oyler. But Morgan ruled the evidence was inadmissible.

According to McDonald, Oyler was at home with his infant daughter and fiancee on the night the Esperanza fire started.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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