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 5

The jurors took a final, secret ballot -- unanimous on all but those three fires. Exhausted, they went home for a night to recover. They returned to the open courtroom the next day, and the long ordeal came to an end at last.

When Judge Morgan finished reading the documents, he handed them to the bailiff, Gina Gurrola. In a strong, clear voice and without hesitation, Gurrola read out the verdicts. "Guilty," she said, for each of the crucial five counts of first-degree murder. She repeated the same word for 17 counts of criminal use of incendiary devices and 20 of the 23 counts of arson. Morgan dismissed the charges on the three fires on which the jury deadlocked.

There was no outburst. On the firefighter side of the courtroom, people bowed their heads and held each other. Several wept, and some left the courtroom to recover. There were also tears on the Oyler side. Oyler had appeared unemotional -- even blank -- throughout most of the trial, only occasionally exchanging a look with his supporters. At the conclusion of this day, however, as he was led from the courtroom in shackles, he cast a long, sad glance over his shoulder in the direction of his family, which included his 22-year-old daughter, Heather.

The guilty verdicts were not the final act in the courtroom drama. They led to a second phase of the trial, in which the same judge and jury would decide whether the death penalty was justified. The most wrenching testimony and evidence had been withheld from the first phase, so as not to prejudice the jury as it determined guilt or innocence. Only in the penalty phase would the families of the fallen firefighters take the stand; only then would investigators speculate on the final moments of Engine 57's crew. Only then would photographs of the five men, from childhood to death, be projected onto television screens in the courtroom. Only then would their loss be truly measured.

A fatal fire does not stop burning when flames are extinguished and the mop-up crew heads home. A fatal fire burns down through generations, scarring forever the lives of the survivors who knew the risks but held onto the hope that a much-loved face would always turn up again at the kitchen door, tired and dirty but smiling and alive. Even in a tragedy, the survivors have the consolation of what are called the "gifts of the fire" -- the outpouring of compassion, a reaffirmation of the brotherhood of fire, the lessons learned. But the penalty phase of the Oyler trial was not about gifts. Rather, it was about what is left when the embers have cooled, the memorial services are over, and the reality of irretrievable loss settles in.

When Maria Loutzenhiser, the first of the family members to take the stand, testified about the loss of her husband, Mark, she had trouble completing a sentence. She could not tell her story in proper sequence. She stammered and stumbled over words and struggled with her emotions. Yet the audience understood her message.

She turned in the witness box and looked straight at the jurors as she spoke. Mark had been the foundation upon which her life rested. She drove him nuts sometimes because she called him so often at work, just to hear his voice and feel the calm of his presence. They had beautiful children, a house in the cozy mountain town of Idyllwild, and loving friends who rallied for her after Mark's death. The wife of a fellow captain virtually moved in to the Loutzenhiser home for most of a year. Friends, neighbors and a community group remodeled the house, basically rebuilding it from the ground up; money donated by friends and strangers had poured in. Maria had an abiding faith in God, but the place Mark had occupied in her life was now a great emptiness.

By the time she finished speaking, many listeners were in tears. The lead prosecutor, Michael Hestrin, called for a break and left the courtroom. A few minutes later, in the corridor outside, he had tears running down his cheeks.

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...