Judge: Oyler Fit to Continue Penalty Phase of Trial

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- A judge ruled Wednesday that a man who set a California wildfire that killed five firefighters is mentally competent and the penalty phase of his trial can continue.

Riverside County Judge W. Charles Morgan ruled Wednesday after reading the report prepared by a psychologist who examined the defendant, Raymond Lee Oyler, overnight. The penalty phase of the trial was halted Tuesday after Oyler's attorney raised concerns about his mental health.

Oyler's attorneys told Judge W. Charles Morgan on Tuesday afternoon that the defendant was not behaving rationally.

"What began to occur yesterday and continued today I have not witnessed before," said defense attorney Mark McDonald. "It is disturbing to me to have someone sitting here and, either voluntarily or involuntarily, hurting his own cause in front of the jury."

Oyler could be seen fidgeting during proceedings Tuesday morning, as the penalty phase of his trial got under way. His attorneys indicated there was a communication problem, as well.

Morgan ran through a list of seven prescription and non-prescription medications Oyler is taking, including an anti-depressant, a pill to control acid reflux, blood-pressure medication and pills to arrest tremors. 

Co-counsel Tom Eckhardt told the judge he was concerned Oyler may have had an epileptic seizure over the weekend that triggered the unexplained behavior. Oyler's family has a history of epilepsy, he said.

"Stress apparently can bring on the first event," Eckhardt said.

Deputy District Attorney Mike Hestrin offered to bring in recordings of Oyler's most recent jailhouse phone conversations to give the judge a better idea of whether the defendant is malingering or actually ill.

Morgan assigned court-appointed psychologist Dr. Robert Suiter to evaluate Oyler on Tuesday evening and report back to the court with his findings on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.

Depending on the doctor's conclusions, the jury may be summoned to hear further testimony in the penalty phase of Oyler's trial that afternoon.

At the conclusion of the trial -- expected in about two weeks -- jurors will decide whether to recommend a death sentence or life in prison without parole for Oyler.

The four-man, eight-woman jury convicted him Friday of five counts of first-degree murder in connection with the Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza wildfire, which killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters.

The defendant was also convicted of three dozen counts of arson and possessing incendiary devices.

The 41,000-acre Esperanza blaze began on the southern edge of Cabazon and roared into the mountain communities of Poppet Flats, Silent Valley and Twin Pines, damaging or destroying 54 homes and other structures.

Among the engine crews dispatched to evacuate and defend properties on a remote hilltop community north of Twin Pines was Engine 57, comprised of USFS firefighters Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, and Pablo Cerda, 24.

The men were overwhelmed by flames as they tried to defend an empty octagonal home at the end of a road. All but Loutzenhiser and Cerda died at the scene.

"You're going to hear how these men died," Hestrin told jurors in his opening statement in the penalty phase. "You'll hear about their last desperate struggle for life, so you can understand the severity of the crime."

The prosecutor said the men's deaths were a "loss to the community."

On the day of the monster fire, as news coverage of the tragedy saturated the airwaves, Oyler was caught on a Valero gas station surveillance video camera "laughing and joking" with a clerk, he said.

U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Chris Fogle was among the first firefighters to discover the bodies of the fallen firemen.

Fogle testified that his crew was a quarter-mile from the house where Engine 57 had deployed. He said wind-driven flames raced through a ravine in seconds and "up and over the house" where his longtime friend, Loutzenhiser, and the other doomed crew members stood.

After Fogle tried unsuccessfully to make contact with Engine 57, his crew and other USFS firefighters nearby ran to the scene, where they discovered the downed men.

He said Cerda was the first victim he located.

"He was pretty bad, hard to recognize," Fogle said, choking back tears.

"Was he conscious?" Hestrin asked.

"Pablo moved an arm," Fogle said.

The witness said as his fellow crew members started medical aid on Cerda, he rushed over to where Loutzenhiser had been found.

"He was laying on his back, (charred) arms sticking straight up," Fogle recalled. "I grabbed his hand and told him I was there and everything would be OK. He tried to respond back, but I couldn't make out what he said."

Hoover-Najera's and McLean's bodies, charred and disfigured, were still burning when Fogle found them, he testified.

To extinguish the flames on McLean, Fogle said he and other firefighters "pulled out our canteens and put him out."

The prosecution displayed photos of the men's remains, sending several family members fleeing into the hallway, sobbing.

Loutzenhiser remained alive for a short time after rescuers reached him. Cerda remained in a coma until his family decided to remove him from life support two days later. The rest of the crew were pronounced dead at the scene.

According to Hestrin, Oyler ignited three other fires after lighting the Esperanza blaze that day.

The defense did not make an opening statement.

In addition to the Esperanza fire, Oyler was convicted last week of lighting 19 other fires in the Banning Pass between May 16, 2006, and Oct. 26, 2006.

Hestrin said the defendant knew when he lit the Esperanza blaze at 1 a.m. in the middle of a Santa Ana windstorm that firefighters would have no air support, leaving ground crews vulnerable.

DNA evidence connected Oyler to two fires in June 2006. Witnesses spotted his vehicle leaving the scene of several fires, and it was photographed by a police surveillance camera moments after a 40-acre blaze erupted north of Banning.

McDonald argued during the trial that his client was blamed for fires someone else set.

An arson expert called by the defense testified that the variety of incendiary devices used to ignite the fires proved more than one arsonist was at work.

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