DA: Arson Suspect Used “Fire as a Weapon”

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- A mechanic accused of igniting a wildfire that killed five firefighters in 2006 had worked for months to perfect an incendiary device, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday in closing arguments of a potential death-penalty murder trial.

Defendant Raymond Oyler experimented with different types of devices and terrain before he started the deadly blaze, Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin told the Riverside County Superior Court jury.

"He knew this fire was going to race up that mountain and he also knew these brave men were going to go racing up that mountain ... and stand toe-to-toe with that fire,"' Hestrin said. "He knew that, and he did it anyway."

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

"These five brave men were killed by a man who taught himself to use fire as a weapon and that man is Raymond Oyler, sitting right there at that table," the prosecutor said.

Oyler, 38, has pleaded not guilty to five counts of first-degree murder, 23 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device. The fires he is charged with setting span a five-month period in 2006, from May 16 to the fatal fire of Oct. 26.

But Oyler's defense attorney, Mark McDonald, said investigators rushed to pin the so-called Esperanza Fire on someone because of intense public outrage after the blaze and then scrambled to fill holes in the evidence.

"In the big scheme of things, Raymond Oyler's fight is not against the evidence in this case. Raymond Oyler's fight is against human emotion. Raymond Oyler's fight is against the death of five heroes, that tragedy," McDonald said.

"These explanations are nonsense. It's just their way of putting the target around Raymond Oyler, who is already their guy."

Hestrin told jurors again Thursday that in the moments before their deaths, the engine crew faced flames 70 feet high, winds up to 40 mph and temperatures that reached up to 1,500 degrees. He said the fire "tore the flesh from their bodies."

The prosecutor reminded jurors that arson investigators found several different kinds of incendiary devices after the fires, ranging from single matches to devices made up of wooden stick matches wrapped around a Marlboro cigarette with duct tape or a rubberband. Two of the earlier devices had Oyler's DNA on the cigarette.

Hestrin told jurors that Oyler went through phases using different devices and switched only when he thought he had been spotted or to experiment with techniques that would be more effective.

Seventeen of the fires Oyler is charged with starting were set while he wasn't employed full time. After he got a fulltime job on June 20, 2006, Hestrin said, only eight fires were set and all but two were set on his day off.

One of those two fires was set on a morning when Oyler was nearly 2½ hours late to work, Hestrin said.

In addition, no fires were set during a six-week period that immediately followed a fight between Oyler and his fiancee during which she confronted him about starting fires and threatened to leave him, Hestrin said.

"There's only one possible conclusion: that Raymond Oyler did all of the fires and that he started the Esperanza Fire and he killed those men," Hestrin said. "See this case for what it is and hold him accountable for murder, because that's what he did."

Defense attorney McDonald countered that testimony shows his client was home watching his 7-month-old daughter when the deadly fire broke out and he could not be the arsonist.

He also challenged the government's assertion that all the fires were set by one person. During trial, a defense expert on arson and incendiary devices testified that as many as three people could have set the blazes because of subtle differences in the match-and-cigarette devices used to start them.

McDonald acknowledged that invesigators found Oyler's DNA on two of the incendiary devices, but said that doesn't prove he set the fatal blaze.

"When you look at the evidence in this case ... it's theories, theories. The theories they've presented to you are not even accurate," he said.

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.

Engine 57's crew was overrun about 7:15 a.m. as they defended a home perched at the top of a steep drainage. 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.

The blaze also destroyed 34 homes and 20 outbuildings and charred nearly 70 square miles of terrain.

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