The Fiery Touch

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

  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
 

Page 4

The wildfire community has closely followed the case of Van Bateman, a Forest Service fire management officer and one-time incident commander of an elite national incident management team. Prosecutors charged that in 2004, Bateman set two unauthorized fires on the Coconino National Forest south of Flagstaff, Ariz., to burn brush and give his crew a bit of work. The fires barely burned 22 acres, but they publicly exposed a long-standing and more or less accepted brush-clearing practice.

"I'm not lily-white on this," said Bateman, who admitted to setting the fires when confronted with global positioning data from his cell phone. He claimed that his actions were sanctioned by tradition, and more than 50 fellow firefighters sent letters to support him. "I'm saying ... I was doing my job. Did I obtain the proper authorization? I did not. But I wasn't trying to start an arson fire. I was trying to clean this piece of country up. I would be shocked if there's anybody who has spent their career in forest management who hasn't done this."

Eventually, the arson charges against Bateman were dropped, but a federal judge sentenced him to 24 months behind bars for starting the technically illegal blaze.

The prosecution of Oyler was a far more complex and challenging effort. Not only had no one ever been convicted of murder for setting a wildfire, the case against Oyler hung by a thread: The notion that a series of fires started with stick matches, cigarettes and rubber bands was the work of a single person. It helped that Oyler's DNA was present on ignition devices for two of the non-lethal fires, that all the fires were close together and near Oyler's home, and that the series evolved from small and ineffective blazes to larger and more destructive ones, one sign of a serial arsonist.

When the prosecution and defense finally rested, the jurors filed into their deliberation room, and a sheriff's deputy locked the door behind them. The room was small and sparsely furnished. A table with chairs occupied most of the space and whiteboards hung on a wall. For nearly two months, jurors had been forbidden to talk with family and friends or even each other about the disturbing narrative that had unfolded in the courtroom. Now they were free to speak and argue over interpreting the evidence.

The jurors introduced themselves, selected a foreman and took a quick vote to see how matters stood: Nine hands went up for guilty, three for not guilty. The foreman, Don Estep, cast one of the not-guilty votes, he said later, to make sure the process continued to the discussion stage. But he soon joined the majority.

Two women, identified here as Stephanie and Amanda (not their real names), could not accept the prosecution's theory that one man had set all the fires. Three other women, by chance seated at the opposite end of the table, confronted them day after day, using photographs, documents and maps from the trial. And day after day, the vote split 10 to 2.

Stephanie "had had a hard life and saw Raymond Oyler as an underdog, and she was an underdog too," says Janis McManigal, an events coordinator, who was one of the three who confronted Stephanie and Amanda. But Amanda, she says, "had trouble seeing the pattern, the connections" between the fires and the similarities of the ignition devices. She repeatedly asked, "How could one person have started all these fires?"

Exhibits studded with yellow memo notes went up on the walls. Scribbles and connecting arrows criss-crossed the dry-erase boards. "Everyone was congenial, it was a nice bunch of people, though I had to cool it down once or twice," Estep recalls. "There was a lot of venom in that room," says McManigal. Finally, in their fifth day of dispute, the jurors separated the 23 fires into groups, based on the weight of the evidence for each. Stephanie and Amanda agreed that Oyler was guilty of starting some fires but refused to go along on three relatively inconsequential ones, for which there was virtually no evidence.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...