The Fiery Touch

Wildfire arsonists burn forests, grasslands and houses -- and kill people. Now one faces the death penalty.

 

When a jury returns to a packed courtroom to announce the verdict in a capital murder case, every noise -- even a chair scraping or a door opening -- cracks like a rifle shot. That's how it was at the trial of Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of murder for setting Southern California's Esperanza Fire, which fatally burned five men on a U.S. Forest Service engine crew. As the jurors filed into the Riverside County Superior Court room on March 6, 2009, they had to work to keep their decision off their faces.

The spectators, who hurried back to the courtroom when they learned that the jury had concluded deliberations, separated like families at an uncomfortable church wedding. Firefighters, relatives of the victims and their supporters filled pew-like benches on the side nearest the jury box. Some had driven many miles and arrived breathless at the last minute. The fire people looked clean, upright and unspeakably sad.

On the other side of the courtroom sat Oyler's family and friends from the Banning Pass area, where Oyler -- a 38-year-old auto mechanic who was in many ways an unlikely suspect -- had lived and where the fatal wildfire had burned. They were scattered along a couple of rear benches, as far from the jury as possible. Several had dozed off or nodded or cast hostile glances during the trial, but there had been no unruly behavior. (Oyler's brother-in-law, Christopher Vaughn Hillman, had put newspaper articles with disallowed information from the trial on the windshields of jurors' cars, and was later found guilty of jury tampering.)

The Oyler clan appeared both hopeful and apprehensive. They had reason for a glimmer of optimism, for the trial had been difficult. The prosecution had no hard physical evidence to tie Oyler to the Esperanza Fire. Instead, prosecutors sought to prove that a string of 23 arson fires in Banning Pass in 2006 -- including Esperanza -- were the work of one person, and that person was Oyler. The ignition devices and the fires' locations showed unmistakable similarities and followed a classic evolutionary pattern, becoming more efficient -- and destructive -- over time. DNA analysis, witnesses, tire tracks and surveillance camera images linked Oyler to several of the other fires, and the Esperanza followed the general pattern: The ignition device, for example, like many of the others, consisted of stick matches bound by a bluish-green rubber band to a Marlboro, Oyler's favorite brand of cigarettes. The prosecution's case depended on whether the jury accepted that the totality of evidence showed a pattern of destruction plotted by a single person "bent on destruction," as the chief prosecutor said.

Adding to the suspense was the fact that no one had ever been convicted of murder for setting a wildfire. The jurors -- eight women and four men -- took their seats and stared straight ahead. "I didn't want to give it away when we walked in," recalls one, Janis McManigal. The prosecutors had wanted women on the jury, they said later, because women can sew facts together.

The jury foreman handed the court bailiff a thick sheaf of verdict forms. Judge W. Charles Morgan, with 23 years on the bench, needed a full five minutes to read the forms, and the tension grew almost unbearable. Oyler faced 45 felony charges: Five counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances, 23 counts of arson, and 17 counts of illegal use of an ignition device. The real issue, though, was the Esperanza Fire and the murder charges. The other counts were added, prosecutors said, only to show that Oyler was responsible for the series that culminated with the lethal fire. The effort to prove that connection had dragged the trial to nearly two months.

"It felt almost like we were in church or at a funeral while the judge read the verdict forms," recalls Vivian Najara, the aunt of one victim. She noted that several members of Oyler's family had come into court crying. "They seemed to know. His sister had a face full of tears."

Prosecutors -- and many people in the nationwide wildfire community -- hoped for more than a precedent-setting determination of guilt and punishment. They wanted to demonstrate absolute toughness to discourage wildfire arsonists, who burn hundreds of thousands of acres each year and trap random victims in the havoc.

The Esperanza Fire started shortly after 1 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2006, in the San Jacinto Mountains above Banning Pass, also known as the San Gorgonio Pass, the main path into the Los Angeles basin from the desert to the east. Ultimately, it burned 41,000 acres and destroyed dozens of houses. Forest Service Engine 57 rolled in to help defend the Twin Pines neighborhood, about 30 houses on a steep ridge face -- typical "wildland-urban interface," where development chews into previously wild and still unforgiving territory. The ground was bone-dry, crumbly and covered with tall chaparral.