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Convicted Arsonists, Sentenced to Death, Go to Cali's Death Row: Limbo

The men convicted of starting the 2003 Old Fire and the 2006 Esperanza Fire, and five counts of murder each, have been sentenced to death. But the last time California imposed the death penalty was more than seven years ago.

A man named Rickie Lee Fowler received a death sentence Monday for five murder convictions and two arson convictions in the October 2003 Old Fire that destroyed a thousand homes and contributed to the deaths of six heart attack victims.

The wind-driven firestorm burned more than 90,000 acres over the course of a week, including Del Rosa in San Bernardino and Hook Creek near Lake Arrowhead, and it forced an estimated 80,000 people to evacuate their homes.

The Old Fire also contributed to the deaths of 16 people, including nine children, when heavy rains on scorched mountainsides unleashed boulder-laden flash floods into Waterman Canyon and Cable Canyon north of San Bernardino, on Christmas Day 2003.

The post-fire erosion deaths brought the death toll linked to the Old Fire to 22. It was one of the deadliest fire-flood episodes in California history. Costs of the Old Fire were estimated at $42 million.

Fowler, 31, was not charged with or tried for the post-fire deaths. He was convicted in August 2012 of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson. A jury recommended the death penalty, and a judge on Monday in San Bernardino agreed, sentencing Fowler to death.

But the last time California imposed the death penalty was in 2006, the same year another arson-set fire killed five firefighters in Twin Pines, above Cabazon in the San Gorgonio Pass.

The Esperanza Fire started early Oct. 26, 2006, three years and a day after the start of the Old Fire. It burned up a drainage into Twin Pines and overwhelmed the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57, who were set up to protect a vacant home on Gorgonio View Road.

Fatally injured in the firestorm that day were Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, Pablo Cerda, 24, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, Jason Robert McKay, 27, and Jess Edward McLean, 27.

Raymond Lee Oyler, a mechanic with ties to Cabazon, Banning and Beaumont, was convicted in March 2009 of five counts of murder, and sentenced to death in June 2009.

Given Fowler's death sentence on Monday, it's expected he will eventually join Oyler on California's death row, a limbo that includes more than 700 other men and women who have been sentenced to death for crimes including murder and torture.

Whether Fowler, Oyler and the others are ever literally put to death by the state remains to be determined. The last time California executed an inmate was Jan. 17, 2006, when convicted murderer Clarence Ray Allen was killed by lethal injection in the death chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

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Washy January 30, 2013 at 02:53 AM
No it doesn't "sorta" give a new respect to gang bangers and drunk drivers.
Lorraine Pozniak January 30, 2013 at 07:59 PM
I don't think guys like this should be sentenced to death, nor should they sit in prison. They should be made to go out and fight fires, just like the ones they set, for the rest of their lives, so maybe there's the possibility they may die the way their victims did.
ATC January 30, 2013 at 09:36 PM
Firefighters put their lives on the line (obviously) every time they are on a call, and that REAL dedication results in countless lives and untold property being saved. People like this (arsonists) would never have the dedication to do actually save lives or property, and therefore would be worthless as firefighters. If my life, or my property is threatened by a fire, I want someone there who WANTS to be there, not someone FORCED to be there. These 2 need to rot in prison for the rest of their lives, and because of the way the death penalty is (not) carried out in CA< that's what they will do. I just wish they were in the general prison population, rather than coddled on death row.
Lorraine Pozniak February 03, 2013 at 08:10 PM
Gary, just in case you didn't know, here in California, as well as in other states, we use prison inmates to fight fires. More than half of the state’s 3,800 full-time wildland firefighters are prison inmates earning $1 an hour as they work off sentences for nonviolent crimes such as theft and drug possession. I knew a guy in Las Vegas that fought forest fires while he served time for his vehicular manslaughter conviction. Okay, so sending convicted arsonists out to fight forest fires might be like putting a rat in charge of the cheese factory, but these guys need pay their debt to society in a way that might have their punishment better fit their crimes.
ATC February 06, 2013 at 06:21 PM
Of course I know that, Lorraine; after all, the Oak Glen Conservation Camp, which houses and trains many of those firefighter inmates is just up the hill, and it is a great resource for the area, as well as for the inmates themselves. However, I would be willing to bet that not a single one of those inmates are convicted arsonists. I never said that "inmates" would never have the dedication to do this. I said that ARSONISTS would not. These two individuals would be the worst possible candidates for an inmate fire crew. They don't need to "pay their debt to society"...they need to cease to exist. Their "crimes" included murder, so the death penalty is in fact a perfectly fitting punishment, if it was actually carried out.

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