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Raymond Lee OYLER






The Esperanza Fire
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Serial arsonist
Number of victims: 5
Date of murders: October 26, 2006
Date of arrest: 5 days after
Date of birth: 1971
Victims profile: Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; Fire Engine Operator Jess "Gus" McLean, 27; Assistant Fire Engine Operator Jason McKay, 27; Firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23; and Firefighter Daniel Hoover Najera, 20
Method of murder: Fire
Location: Riverside County, California, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on June 5, 2009
photo gallery

Esperanza Fire Accident Investigation


Factual Report (3.8 Mb)


The Esperanza Fire was a wind-driven, arson-caused wildfire started on October 26, 2006, in a river wash near Cabazon, California, west of Palm Springs, California. By October 29, 2006, it burned over 61 square miles (160 kmē) and was 85% contained. On October 30, 2006, the fire was fully contained.

Five firefighters were killed defending a vacant house locally known as the "Octagon" that was ultimately destroyed by the fire: Jason McKay, Jess McLean, Daniel Najera, Mark Loutzenhiser, and Pablo Cerda. In June 2009, Raymond Lee Oyler was sentenced to death for starting the fire.


The fire was started on October 26, 2006, and burned an estimated 40,200 acres (163 kmē) before containment. It resulted in the deaths of five firefighters, and destroyed 34 houses and 20 outbuildings, as well as damaging the pavement of State Route 243. The damage the fire caused is estimated at more than $9 million, and was the worst wildfire since 1994.

The fire spread rapidly in moderate Santa Ana winds and flammable brush due to the fire's proximity to the Chapparal biome, charring 24,000 acres (97 kmē) in 18 hours. In comparison, the Ventura County Day Fire burned 24,000 acres (97 kmē) in two weeks. There were reports that smoke from the fire could be smelled as far away as San Diego.

The firefighters who died were overwhelmed by the fire when the winds shifted and blew the fire towards them. They were trying to defend a house above Cabazon, which was ultimately lost. Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, from Idyllwild, California, Fire Engine Operator Jess "Gus" McLean, 27, from Beaumont, California, Assistant Fire Engine Operator Jason McKay, 27, from Apple Valley, California, Firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, from Fountain Valley, California and Firefighter Daniel Hoover/Najera, 20, from San Jacinto, California, were killed defending the "Octagon House."

Mclean and McKay died next to their fire engine without having time to enter it. Najera's body was found to the west of the structures they were trying to protect. The surviving two firefighters were transferred to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center where Loutzenhiser succumbed to his injuries shortly after arriving. Cerda died at 5:08 PM PST on October 31, 2006 in Arrowhead Regional Medical Center from his injuries.

On October 26, 2006 FEMA announced it would pay 75% of the costs associated with fighting the fire. On October 27, 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Riverside County and ordered flags at the California Capitol building and all California Department of Forestry stations to be flown at half-staff.

Firefighters from as far away as Alameda County worked to control the blaze.

Criminal investigation

A nearly $600,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist(s). Several government as well as private agencies donated to this reward. The State of California, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Soboba Band of Luiseņo Indians, and Tim Blixseth, a Coachella Valley logging industry magnate, each donated $100,000.

The Riverside County Sheriff Department's Central Homicide Unit arrested Raymond Lee Oyler, a mechanic from Beaumont, on October 31, 2006 for setting two wildfires in the summer of 2006. "Inside his car, authorities found a wig, latex gloves, cigarettes, black spray paint and a partially burned slingshot that Hestrin said was used to launch incendiary devices into the brush. His DNA was found on two cigarette butts used in other nearby wildfires. ... Oyler's girlfriend told police that he had bragged about setting fires and had complained that they weren't big enough. She threatened to leave him if he didn't stop, so he quit for six months, Hestrin said."

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department announced on November 2, 2006, that Oyler also was charged for his involvement with the Esperanza Fire, which killed five firefighters. Overall, he was charged with almost two dozen counts of arson and 17 counts of setting fires with an incendiary device.

Prosecutors alleged that Oyler had set as many as 25 fires throughout the San Gorgonio Pass in summer 2006. The fires combined and became more difficult to extinguish. He used a combination of matches and cigarettes to start a fire in Cabazon at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. "The defense conceded that Oyler set 11 fires, just not the 2006 Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters."

On November 11, 2006 it was announced that Oyler was also a suspect in the 2003 Old Fire. However, another person was later convicted of setting that fire.

After a week of deliberation, a Riverside jury on March 6, 2009 returned a verdict of first-degree murder against Oyler for the deaths of the five firefighters killed in the fire.

On May 9, 2007, Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco said that he planned to seek the death penalty against Oyler. On June 5, 2009, Oyler was sentenced to death for starting the 2006 Esperanza fire.


  • Riverside County is establishing a fund to help the families of the firefighters who were killed fighting the fire.

  • An October 27 concert at the Soboba Casino by country music star Alan Jackson was indefinitely postponed since the venue was such a short distance from the fire line and authorities did not wish to allow more people in the area than necessary.

  • A public memorial was held on November 5, 2006 at the San Manuel Amphitheater in Devore, CA for the five fallen firefighters.

  • The community (worldwide) donated over $1.3 Million to the Central County United Way and nearly $400,000 to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation in support of the families of the fallen firefighters. Donations to the surviving families were received from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, France, and the UK.

  • The United States Congress and the California Legislature both passed laws to ensure the funds would go to the families without taxation of the receiving families, as well as those giving donations being able to consider their donations as tax deductible.

NASA Altair UAV fire mapping mission

The California Office of Emergency Services requested NASA support, and in under 24 hours the General Atomics Altair (NASA variant of the Predator B) was launched on a 16-hour mission to map the perimeter of the fire. The Altair had just returned from a test mission a day before the Esperanza Fire started. The fire mapping research is a joint project with NASA and the US Forest Service.


Esperanza arsonist Raymond Lee Oyler sentenced to death

The man convicted of setting the 2006 fire in Riverside County that killed five firefighters gets the death penalty. Before the sentencing, families of the deceased asked for justice and closure.

By David Kelly - Los Angeles Times

June 06, 2009

Raymond Lee Oyler, the Beaumont mechanic convicted of setting the 2006 Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters, was sentenced to death Friday by a judge who said the serial arsonist had set out to "create havoc."

"He became more and more proficient," said Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan. "He knew young men and women would put their lives on the line to protect people and property, yet he continued anyway."

Oyler, 38, sat blank-faced beside his lawyer while members of his family wept in the rows behind him.

Before the sentencing, family members of the dead firefighters were allowed to address him. Gloria Ayala, mother of Daniel Hoover-Najera, went first.

"I will never see the children he would have had. I will never hear 'I love you, Mom' in his voice ever again. The pain of never seeing my son again is unbearable," she said as she struggled to retain her composure. "Not only have you destroyed my family, but you destroyed your own family."

Ayala said her son's room remains the way it was before he died near Twin Pines in the San Jacinto Mountains. Sometimes, she said, she sleeps in his bed.

Cecilia McLean, whose son Jess McLean died in the blaze, told Oyler she can't sleep, can't concentrate on daily tasks and volunteers to work overtime just to be away from home and the memories of her son.

"I turn down invitations to go places with family and friends because I never know when something will trigger a memory of Jess," she said. "I'm a mother and my job is to protect my children. I couldn't protect Jess and I'll never forgive myself. We have had to hear and see images that will stay with us forever. Not once have I seen any remorse from Raymond Oyler."

Her other son, Josh McLean, was more direct.

"He stole something from us that he cannot repay," he told the judge in the silent courtroom. "I hope, sir, that you sentence him to die for what he did to my brother because that is justice. There is nothing fair you can do to make this right, but you can give us a little closure."

Minutes later, the judge granted his wish.

Turning to Oyler, he said: "You shall suffer the death penalty, with said penalty to be inflicted within the walls of San Quentin."

A minute or so later, Oyler smiled and laughed with his attorney, seemingly unmoved by what had just happened.

His relatives quietly cried as the packed courtroom slowly emptied.

Outside the courthouse, his daughter Heather Oyler, 22, said that her father felt remorse and his laughing was mere comic relief.

"It has been very emotional," she said. "It touched me to hear that [the firefighters' families] think about us. We feel just as bad for them as they do for us. If Ray could talk to them, I think he would tell them he didn't do it. He feels bad for them."

She said she still believes her father is innocent.

Oyler was convicted March 6 of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device. A jury called for the death penalty.

Prosecutors say he set a string of fires, as many as 25, throughout the San Gorgonio Pass in summer 2006. The fires, sometimes set day after day, steadily grew larger and more difficult to put out.

About 1 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2006, with Santa Ana winds gusting hard, Oyler used a combination of matches and cigarettes to start a fire in Cabazon at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. The fire swiftly swept up the hillsides, reaching speeds of 40 mph and temperatures of 1,500 degrees.

The firefighters, part of a U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew, were trying to save a house in a canyon when they were overwhelmed by a wall of flames.

The dead were Hoover-Najera, 20; McLean, 27; Pablo Cerda, 23; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; and Jason McKay, 27.

Mark McDonald, one of Oyler's lawyers, said his client didn't get a fair trial because all of the arson cases were lumped together, not tried separately.

"Esperanza would have become a separate fire and there would not have been enough evidence to convict Oyler," he said. "You are not supposed to convict people on related charges but on the actual charge."

But Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin said it was critical to the case to show that Oyler was a serial arsonist and that Esperanza was just one of many fires he set.

"If Esperanza had been his first fire, I'm not sure this would have been a death penalty case. You could say he didn't know what would happen. But he knew what would happen here," he said. "He didn't care about what he did. It's amazing more people weren't killed."

After leaving the courtroom, Ayala was asked if she would attend Oyler's execution.

"I will probably be the farthest place from it," she said.

In fact, she said she forgives Oyler for killing her son.

"Ultimately, he has one judge and that is God."


Riverside County jury orders death for arsonist

Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, had been convicted of killing five firefighters in the 2006 Esperanza blaze.

By David Kelly - Los Angeles Times

March 19, 2009

RIVERSIDE — After barely a day of deliberation, a Riverside County jury on Wednesday returned a verdict of death for Raymond Lee Oyler for starting the 2006 Esperanza fire in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains that killed five firefighters, destroyed 34 homes and charred more than 41,000 acres.

Firefighters and the families of the victims hailed the decision and said it offered a measure of justice for a crime they said had torn a hole in the fabric of their lives.

"For the last 2 1/2 years, life has been unbearable," said Gloria Ayala, the mother of Daniel Hoover-Najera, one of the firefighters killed in the blaze. "Danny is no longer down the hallway, no longer a conversation away. This loss is almost too much, but now justice will be served."

She also had a message for Oyler.

"I harbor no anger, only hope that you understand the depth of pain you caused us and your family," Ayala said, as she stood with the families of other victims outside the courthouse. "More importantly, I forgive you for the act that took my son's life."

Judge W. Charles Morgan will sentence Oyler to death or life in prison without parole at a hearing June 5.

Oyler, 38, was convicted March 6 of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device. Prosecutors said the Beaumont mechanic had set fires throughout the San Gorgonio Pass in the summer of 2006 leading up to the Esperanza fire on Oct. 26.

Early that morning, he used a combination of matches and a cigarette to light a fire in a remote area of Cabazon. Gusty Santa Ana winds drove the flames into the San Jacinto Mountains, where they reached speeds of 40 mph and temperatures of 1,500 degrees.

A U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew based in Idyllwild was overrun by flames while trying to save a house. In addition to Hoover-Najera, 20, the victims were Pablo Cerda, 23; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; Jason McKay, 27; and Jess McLean, 27.

The trial lasted more than a month, during which jurors were shown gruesome photos of the dead, some of whom suffered burns to more than 90% of their bodies. But even after seeing and hearing the evidence, and even after convicting Oyler of first-degree murder, the jury was hesitant to sentence him to death.

"I tell you there were more tears today than in any part of the trial," said the jury foreman, who declined to give his name. "People kept asking, 'What if? What if?' But when we looked at those pictures of the firemen again, that convinced us."

The foreman said hearing witness Maria Loutzenhiser, wife of Mark Loutzenhiser, talk about the ordeal and life after her husband's death was the most emotional part of the trial.

"Everyone just lost it," he said, tearing up.

The juror said the panel initially had a hard time determining whether Oyler was guilty of setting the Esperanza fire until they began tying all the smaller blazes together. He said a series of lies told by Oyler about his whereabouts the night of the fire also swayed them.

"When you follow it all to the end, there was no other conclusion," he said.

Heather Oyler, the convicted murderer's 21-year-old daughter, had hoped for mercy. Her father, she said, was a "very nice man."

"I just want you to know my dad is not the monster they have painted him as," she said, surrounded by distraught family members. "I understand that my dad may have had problems, but he did not intend to kill anyone."

She vowed to visit him in San Quentin every month and help with his appeal.

Bonnie McKay, mother of Jason McKay, said trial testimony showed that some members of the Oyler family knew he was setting fires.

"If a family member had come forward from the get-go, we wouldn't be standing here today and they wouldn't have lost their loved one," she said.

Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins pronounced Oyler's "reign of terror" over.

The man who prosecuted the case, Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin, thanked the jury for reliving the horror of the fire.

"The men of Engine 57 truly were the best of us," he said. "When everyone else was running away from the fire, they were running toward it."

Oyler's defense attorneys were not available for comment. During closing arguments in the death penalty phase Tuesday, attorney Thomas Eckhardt admitted that his client was a serial arsonist and a murderer. But killing him, he said, would not bring back the dead, and life in prison without parole was a fitting punishment.

Perhaps the most vehement reaction to the death verdict came from the chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, Jeff Stone, who spoke outside the courthouse alongside the victims' families.

"It shall in no way compare to the eternal punishment that will be suffered by Raymond Oyler in hell," he said.


Trial of Esperanza fire suspect ends

Raymond Lee Oyler is accused of setting the deadly blaze in Cabazon in 2006 for his own amusement. Five firefighters died.

By David Kelly - Los Angeles Times

February 27, 2009

After more than a month of testimony, the trial of Raymond Lee Oyler ended Thursday with the prosecution describing the Beaumont mechanic as a murderer who set a killer wildfire for his own amusement and to satisfy a lust for power. The defense conceded that Oyler set 11 fires, just not the 2006 Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters.

"Those five men were killed by a man who taught himself to use fire as a weapon," said Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin. "The fire washed over them. It tore the flesh from their bodies. At that moment, Raymond Oyler took everything from those men -- everything they were and everything they would ever be."

Hestrin said Oyler, 38, had begun setting small fires with matches and cigarettes, but as time went on, they grew larger.

"In the days leading up to Esperanza, he became obsessed with setting the mountain on fire," Hestrin said. "This was a man who kept pushing and pushing to get what he wanted. What he wanted was total destruction."

The Esperanza fire erupted in the early-morning hours of Oct. 26 at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains in Cabazon. Santa Ana winds pushed the flames up the mountain, where they reached speeds of 40 mph and temperatures of 1,500 degrees. A crew of U.S. Forest Service firefighters was trapped in a steep canyon while trying to save a house. Flames rolled over them, killing three instantly and two shortly after.

Oyler was arrested a few days later and charged with setting the fire and at least 23 others in the San Gorgonio Pass area. Inside his car, authorities found a wig, latex gloves, cigarettes, black spray paint and a partially burned slingshot that Hestrin said was used to launch incendiary devices into the brush. His DNA was found on two cigarette butts used in other nearby wildfires.

During the trial, a truck driver said he spoke to Oyler at a gas station shortly after the fire started. As they watched the flames run up the mountain, he said, Oyler told him that the fire "is happening just the way I thought it would."

Oyler's girlfriend told police that he had bragged about setting fires and had complained that they weren't big enough. She threatened to leave him if he didn't stop, so he quit for six months, Hestrin said.

The families of the victims, along with firefighters, packed the courtroom. Many quietly wept during some of the more graphic testimony.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald said Hestrin had Oyler "dead to rights" on setting many of the smaller fires, but not the Esperanza fire. He said Oyler usually set fires by laying matches over a lighted cigarette, not with the kind of device used in the Esperanza blaze, which was made of matches wrapped around a cigarette with a rubber band. His client, he said, was a scapegoat.

"Raymond Oyler's fight is against human emotions, it's the fight against the death of five heroes," McDonald said. "We want to hold someone accountable. There is an overwhelming urge by the public to find somebody. That somebody was Raymond Oyler."

McDonald said that Oyler was home with his infant daughter the night of the fire and that evidence points to at least one other arsonist working in the area at the time.

Hestrin rejected the two arsonist theory. He said that all the fires occurred near Oyler's home when he was off work and that surveillance cameras and witnesses saw him near the fires, including the Esperanza blaze.

"Raymond Oyler set this fire and killed these five brave men," Hestrin told jurors. "Hold him accountable for murder. That's what he did. He killed these men."

Deliberations are set to begin today.


Arson trial begins for suspect in Esperanza blaze, which killed 5 firefighters

Raymond Lee Oyler is charged with murder and arson in the 2006 Cabazon fire.

By David Kelly - Los Angeles Times

January 23, 2009

Raymond Lee Oyler, who is charged with setting the October 2006 Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters, was a serial arsonist whose girlfriend once gave him an ultimatum to stop setting fires or she would leave him, prosecutors said Thursday.

In opening statements at Oyler's trial, Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin told jurors that the 38-year-old auto mechanic had set more than 20 fires in the San Gorgonio Pass area in the months before the fatal blaze.

Each time, the fires got bigger, Hestrin said, growing from 10 acres to 60 acres to 1,500 acres.

And then, Hestrin said, a little after 1 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2006, when Santa Ana winds were buffeting the region, Oyler created the "perfect storm" of a fire. Touched off a few feet from Esperanza Avenue in Cabazon, the fire rocketed up a gully, reaching speeds of 40 mph with flames soaring 100 feet high. Temperatures hit 1,300 degrees. Guardrails along Highway 243 melted.

Hestrin described the flames as rolling like water over the five firefighters of Engine 57 who were battling to save a house on an isolated dirt road in the San Jacinto Mountains. Three perished on the spot, and two died later.

"It burned their skin, it burned flesh and it left white bones in places," he continued, as family members of the victims and the accused listened in the packed courtroom. "The violence is unimaginable."

Mark McDonald, Oyler's attorney, said prosecutors had theories, not facts. He rejected the idea that his client was a serial arsonist and said Oyler had no connection to the fire.

"I'm not saying he hasn't set any fires," he said later outside court, "just not the Esperanza fire."

McDonald hopes to prove that another man was responsible, a firefighter who was in the area when the blaze began.

According to Hestrin, Oyler told a witness that he planned to set the fire as a diversion to break his pit bull out of an animal control facility where it had been taken for biting someone.

"His girlfriend will tell you that he was going to 'set the hill on fire' and rescue the dog during the confusion," Hestrin told jurors.

McDonald disputed that, saying Oyler got his dog back the day before the fire.

The prosecution said Oyler had used similar incendiary devices in every incident. In the Esperanza fire, a handful of wooden matches were bundled around a Marlboro cigarette with a rubber band and set in the brush. The cigarette was lit, giving the arsonist about 10 minutes to get away before it reached the matches and sparked the fire. Other times, matches were placed on a lighted cigarette.

Hestrin said Oyler's DNA was found on cigarettes used in two arsons.

"His girlfriend will say that she knew he was setting fires. And she gave him an ultimatum to stop setting fires or, she said, 'I will leave you,' " Hestrin said. "This happened after a Moreno Valley fire shut down the 60 Freeway. They were watching television and he said, 'I did that.' "

Chastened by his girlfriend, with whom he had a 6-month-old child, Oyler stopped setting fires for six weeks, Hestrin said.

The prosecution also showed pictures from a gas station security camera in Banning recorded minutes after the Esperanza fire broke out. A truck driver, now a witness in the case, spoke with a man he later identified as Oyler lingering around the pumps.

"It was the perfect place to view the fire," Hestrin said. "The two made small talk and then [Oyler] said, 'The fire is acting exactly how I thought it would.' "

McDonald told the court that there was no DNA connecting Oyler to the Esperanza fire. He also said a key witness got involved only after she learned she might get a reward. He said prosecutors had overcharged Oyler for the sake of arresting someone in a highly emotional case.

Oyler himself says he was home watching his son the night of the fire, later going out to the Morongo Indian casino.

The only witness Thursday was California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Andrew Bennett, the first incident commander who arrived that night. He said the speed of the fire was a dynamic he had not experienced in decades as a firefighter -- a rolling wave of flame moving at incredible speeds. "It was a tube of fire," he said.

The trial continues Monday. If convicted, Oyler could face the death penalty.


Cigarette-match devices betray serial arsonist, prosecutors say

Riverside County judge hears preliminary evidence in case of five Esperanza fire deaths.

By Maeve Reston - Los Angeles Times

March 20, 2007

In the five months leading up to the 40,000-acre Esperanza fire that killed five federal firefighters in October, investigators in Riverside County were on the hunt for a serial arsonist they believed was responsible for more than 50 fires in the San Gorgonio Pass.

They posted surveillance cameras on telephone poles in remote areas and strategized about how to catch the person. They also came to believe the arsonist was becoming increasingly sophisticated -- refining arson devices and choosing terrain where a wild fire could spread quickly across the mountains.

Raymond Lee Oyler, a 36-year-old Beaumont mechanic, was that person, Riverside County prosecutors alleged in a preliminary hearing Monday.

Oyler's DNA has been linked to two fires ignited in June in the San Gorgonio Pass, authorities say, and an investigator testified Monday that a Ford Taurus -- later traced to Oyler -- was the only vehicle captured on tape entering the remote Mias Canyon area within minutes of an arson there and just four days before the Esperanza fire.

The Riverside County district attorney's office has charged Oyler with five counts of first-degree murder, 23 counts of arson and 17 counts of possession of materials to commit arson. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted on the murder charges, he could face the death penalty.

This week, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Prevost will determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.

As Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin spent hours Monday detailing each of the 23 fires, he showed photographs that he said illustrated that many of the fires were ignited with red-tipped wooden matches, often arranged on or around a Marlboro cigarette.

"We believe the evidence will show all of the fires were committed by one person, and it's a serial arsonist that did it," Hestrin said. "The devices Mr. Oyler used have distinct similarities ... and you can see how the devices change over time and how there's an evolution in the thinking of the defendant."

Despite the details from prosecutors, Oyler's lawyer, Mark McDonald, said he still did not see any "rhyme or reason" to the fires or a strong linkage between them.

"There is, to me, a big difference between an arsonist who throws a match out the window ... and someone who takes the time to skillfully put together a device," McDonald said.

"One is artistic and creative in a bad way ... the other one is just throwing a match out the window.... It points to different people. I don't see the commonality."

A number of fire investigators said in testimony Monday that the arsonist appeared to be trying out different techniques -- open-flame devices, cigarette-and-match devices, and matches thrown into the brush.

Hestrin showed photographs of the point of origin of the first three fires Oyler is charged with -- all ignited May 16 within a 1-mile radius, and within about 20 to 30 minutes -- including the intact devices, which were made with red-tipped matches wrapped around a Marlboro Light cigarette with a thick, green rubber band.

Capt. Charlie DeHart, an investigator with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the May 16 fires had a signature. In two fires, the cigarette was wrapped with 31 matches. In the third, it was wrapped with 33 matches.

In all three, the device was originally held together with the rubber band, he said.

As the summer progressed, fewer matches were used to start the fires. "It's my opinion that it was experimentation ... to see which one works the best," DeHart said.

The Esperanza fire was started at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 26.

As they tried to protect a house in Twin Palms, flames swept over U.S. Forest Service firefighters: Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, the team's captain; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; and Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley. Cerda was taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton with burns over 90% of his body. He died several days later.


Statement says Oyler watched arson fire

From the Associated Press

November 16, 2006

The suspect in a massive arson wildfire that killed five firefighters in Riverside County told prosecutors that on the night of the fire he drove to a spot near where it started so he could watch the flames, according to a police report.

Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, denied having anything to do with the crime when he spoke to investigators Oct. 27, the day after the fire began. He told investigators he had been gambling at the Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa and then stopped at a Shell gas station before "traveling toward the Esperanza fire to watch it," according to the document that summarizes Oyler's interviews with police.

The affidavit says Oyler took an exit onto surface streets that would have placed him near where the fire started but does not specify where he stopped.

Investigators inspected surveillance video from the casino and the gas station but did not find images of Oyler at either location during the times he said he was there, according to the affidavit, which was given to the Associated Press by a person close to the investigation.

The person insisted on anonymity because all documents in the case have been sealed.

The fire charred more than 60 square miles.

The firefighters died when they were overrun by flames as they tried to protect a house in Twin Pines.

Oyler was charged Nov. 2 with multiple counts of murder and arson, and could face the death penalty if convicted.

He also is charged with starting 10 other fires in the same San Gorgonio Pass area since early June.


Esperanza suspect tied to 2 blazes

DNA links cigarette-and-wooden-match incendiary devices found at two earlier San Gorgonio Pass fires to Raymond Lee Oyler, a court affidavit says.

By Maeve Reston - Los Angeles Times

November 15, 2006

The incendiary device allegedly used to set the deadly wildfire that killed five firefighters in Riverside County three weeks ago was similar to devices used to set two earlier fires linked to suspected arsonist Raymond Lee Oyler, a court affidavit alleges.

In all three fires, the arsonist set the blaze in the San Gorgonio Pass area by placing six or seven wooden matches atop a lighted cigarette, according to the court document.

DNA evidence recovered at the two earlier fires, which were set in June, is similar to the DNA profile of Oyler, the Beaumont man authorities have charged with five counts of murder for allegedly starting the 40,000-acre Esperanza fire, according to an affidavit filed by Matthew Wayne Gilbert, an investigator with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Authorities have released few details about the investigation into the blaze, which allegedly was set in the early morning of Oct. 26 at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains west of Palm Springs.

The Riverside County district attorney's office has charged Oyler with murder in the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters who were overtaken by flames as they tried to protect a home in the Twin Pines area.

Oyler has also been charged with lighting 10 other fires in the Beaumont-Banning area this summer and fall.

Gilbert stated in an Oct. 31 affidavit filed in Riverside County Superior Court that while he was investigating a fire that began June 9 on the Morongo Indian Reservation, he found an incendiary device composed of six wooden matches arranged on top of a cigarette.

In a second fire June 10, Gilbert said he found a similar device at the point of origin: a Marlboro cigarette and seven wooden matches.

At the site of the Esperanza fire in October, fire investigators found a Marlboro cigarette and six wooden matches held together with a rubber band, Gilbert said in the affidavit.

Investigators said they had tied DNA collected from the two cigarettes that were part of the devices used June 9 and 10 to the DNA collected when Oyler voluntarily gave a sample to sheriff's deputies when he was being questioned about the Esperanza fire.

In the affidavit, Gilbert wrote that officials were still running DNA tests on the match and cigarette device found at the Esperanza fire.

Oyler's lawyer, Mark McDonald, said he still had major questions about the DNA evidence and whether the samples from the June 9 and June 10 fires could be definitively matched to his client.

"A DNA profile -- it's a vague term," McDonald said. "A profile is only as good as its ability to exclude everyone else. DNA profiles can be ones that don't exclude my client. It could include other people. None of that has been specifically laid out."

"I have utmost faith that he's the wrong person," McDonald said.


Murder Charged In Fire

Suspect, held in earlier blazes, enters a not guilty plea.

5 Firefighters Died

By Maeve Reston, Jonathan Abrams and Sara Lin - Los Angeles Times

November 03, 2006

A 36-year-old auto mechanic from Beaumont was charged Thursday with arson and five counts of murder for allegedly setting last week's Esperanza fire, which killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and destroyed 34 homes in a remote mountain area of Riverside County.

Convicted felon Raymond Lee Oyler has been in custody since Tuesday, when authorities arrested him on suspicion of setting two smaller blazes in June and announced that he was a "person of interest" in the fatal arson fire. If convicted, Oyler could face the death penalty.

Authorities provided little information about what led them to Oyler. Prosecutors said they found "a consistency" to the string of fires set in the San Gorgonio Pass from early June through October.

"We had 30-plus people in one room reviewing every bit of evidence. It becomes a cross-examination by the most experienced prosecutors in the state of California," said Riverside County Dist. Atty.-elect Rod Pacheco, an assistant district attorney who takes over the top office in January. "We came to a unanimous conclusion."

Along with murder, Oyler was charged with 11 counts of arson and 10 counts of possession of materials to commit arson.

Oyler's attorney, Mark R. McDonald, said his client "adamantly denies" any involvement in the deadly Esperanza fire or the other fires he is accused of setting.

At his arraignment in Riverside County Superior Court on Thursday afternoon, a heavily tattooed Oyler stood handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit, staring at the floor. He entered a plea of not guilty on all 26 counts.

Asked about Pacheco's characterization of the evidence against Oyler as "overwhelming," McDonald expressed skepticism.

"If it was overwhelming," Oyler would have been charged with the crimes much sooner, McDonald said.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller, who has spent the last week shuttling between the dead firefighters' families and the hospital where one firefighter lost a six-day fight to survive, had tears in his eyes Thursday as law enforcement officials announced the charges against Oyler.

"Are things OK? No, things are not OK. It will not bring them back," Miller said of Oyler's arrest. "We appreciate everything our friends in the Forest Service community have done for us, and the county of Riverside. But the emotions aren't over yet."

Authorities would not comment on whether they believe Oyler acted alone.

Edith Bowers, who lives in the Cabazon neighborhood near where the Esperanza fire started, told The Times that when she saw Oyler's face on a news website, she recognized him as one of two men she saw at the scene shortly after the blaze began.

"As soon as I saw his picture, it blew me away," said Bowers, adding that she was interviewed by sheriff's detectives last week. "Put a hat on him and stick him in a lineup and I'll pick him out." She said she had not talked with authorities since Oyler's arrest.

Oyler had previous run-ins with the law, court documents show. In 1995, he pleaded guilty to auto theft in San Bernardino County. Six years later, he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance there.

A mixed reputation

Oyler's former father-in-law, Kenneth Bond, described Oyler as a "lowlife." Bond's daughter, Christy, married Oyler in the Bond family's backyard in Chino Hills in 1997. They moved to Joplin, Mo., and separated in 1999, shortly after she obtained a restraining order against him, saying he was a violent man who sold drugs.

"[He] verbally harassed me, there is so much drug trafficking going on, I said I will not tolerate it in my home because of me and my child," she stated in the March 30, 1999, petition in the circuit court of Jasper County, Mo. "I do not want that. He is so paranoid, it scares me. He is very unpredictable and hits walls."

The couple divorced in 2001, and she was killed in a traffic accident last year.

"Maybe he's changed since then, but I doubt it," Bond said from his home in Rogers, Ark. "Ray was pretty worthless. That's as nice as I can be about him."

Riverside County birth records also show that Oyler fathered a daughter in 1987, when he was 16. The mother was 15 when the baby was born at Riverside Community Hospital.

Oyler's co-workers at Highland Springs Automotive in Beaumont, where Oyler has worked for the last few months, had a much more favorable impression of the man and said they believed authorities had the wrong person.

Mechanic Jason King, 23, said Oyler kept pictures of his girlfriend and their 7-month-old daughter in his toolbox, which was confiscated by authorities.

"It was obvious that they were what he was living for," King said. "This guy, he wanted to change his life. He didn't do something like this."

General manager Jason Walden described Oyler as "a very good guy" who let homeless people sleep in his cars and would rush home to care for his daughter when his girlfriend, a waitress, worked the night shift.

"If Ray's guilty, he should be punished," Walden said. "But we work with fire torches, and it's not like he stands there and glares at it."

Walden added that Oyler had told him Monday that investigators wanted him to take a polygraph test, and when he refused, "detectives told him they were going to make his life a living hell."

Authorities refused to comment on their contacts with Oyler.

As news spread, neighbors of Oyler's parents in Banning expressed disbelief. Neighbor Eddie Lyon said Oyler, known for working on his cars at odd hours of the night, helped him work on one of his trucks.

"If he did do it, I guarantee it was an accident," he said. "He probably dropped a cigarette or something. He's a chain smoker."

Most of Oyler's family declined to talk about Thursday's charges. His uncle Charles Oyler of Banning said he was stunned by the news.

"I'm just as shocked as anyone," he said. "He was a pretty nice guy, from what I saw."

William "Billy" Hutson, who said sheriff's officials had accused him of being the arsonist when he was questioned Monday, said Thursday evening that he was relieved he was no longer under scrutiny.

"They already had tried, convicted and sentenced me," said Hutson, who was convicted of an arson in Texas 10 years ago and, after the Esperanza fire, had his home searched by sheriff's officials. "I knew I was innocent and the truth would eventually come out."

Weekend surveillance

Authorities questioned Oyler on Friday and put him under surveillance throughout the weekend, arresting him at 3 p.m. Tuesday during a traffic stop in Beaumont.

Authorities charged him with five counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances. The Riverside County district attorney's office will decide in the next 60 days whether to pursue the death penalty.

The firefighters killed in the Oct. 26 blaze were Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; and Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley, who succumbed to his injuries Tuesday.

The men were overrun by flames while defending a home. The blaze was the deadliest in the nation for firefighters since July 1994, when 14 were killed in Colorado.

McDonald, Oyler's attorney, said he had not seen police reports and had "no idea what the allegations are and their truth." He said he worried that his client would not get a fair trial in Riverside because of "the emotionally charged nature of the case," adding that he may seek to shift the court case elsewhere.

Oyler is being held without bail in a seventh-floor jail ward at the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside, McDonald said, where he is isolated from the general population because of the publicity surrounding the case.

McDonald said he found his client "almost catatonic" and "scared to death" when he visited him in jail for 20 minutes Wednesday. His parents and girlfriend, meanwhile, remained "in shock."

"They all say he could never have done it," McDonald said. "They're completely in the dark right now."

Oyler's next court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 15.

At the news conference in Riverside when Oyler's arrest was announced, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone called Oyler a "pyromaniacal murderer."

"The perpetrator believes that he has seen the fire of all fires. I disagree with his fantasy," Stone said. "As a person of strong faith, I believe that this perpetrator will see a firestorm bigger than he's ever imagined when he meets his ultimate fate at the conclusion of his shameful life."

Firefighters said they got some measure of closure from the charges against Oyler.

"I would say it is excellent work by the teams put together to investigate this tragedy, and we expect that justice will be done," said Pat Boss, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman and longtime friend of Loutzenhiser.

Boss and his family have been helping Loutzenhiser's wife, Maria, and her five children since his death last week. She declined to comment Thursday.

"It's rough for her," Boss said. "And it's getting rougher as we get closer to the memorial this Sunday. She is getting her thoughts together for the service."

The public memorial for the firefighters will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Hyundai Pavilion in Devore.

Efren Ayala, stepfather of deceased firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera of San Jacinto, likewise declined to comment except to say he was glad an arrest had been made.



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