RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A prosecutor said Wednesday he will pursue the death penalty against the man accused of setting a wildfire that killed five firefighters last fall.
Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco said he made the decision after reviewing the evidence and consulting with the firefighters' family members, who were split on the capital punishment question. He said several factors, including Raymond Lee Oyler's criminal record and the severe losses suffered by the community, influenced his decision.
Oyler, a 36-year-old auto mechanic, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, 17 counts of using an incendiary device and 23 counts of arson. He was arrested Oct. 31 after the wind-whipped Esperanza fire raced through the foothills near Banning, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.
"I considered what I personally considered to be an incredible and callous disregard to the safety of the firefighters who would respond to the fires over a period of time," Pacheco said. "He expressed on numerous occasions that he wanted to burn the mountain down."
Oyler was convicted in 2001 on a drug possession charge and has had run-ins with the law in California and Missouri.
Defense attorney Mark McDonald said Oyler expected the decision.
"That said, Mr. Oyler has always been and still remains confident that the issue of death will never come before a jury anyway," McDonald said. "He's confident he won't be convicted of the Esperanza Fire and the related fires."
During a hearing two months ago, Oyler's fiancee and second cousin testified that he had boasted about lighting fires in the Banning Pass area during the summer months. Crystal Breazile, however, denied that her fiance set the blaze that claimed the U.S. Forest Service firefighters' lives.
Breazile, who has a young daughter with Oyler, said she and Oyler were watching televised reports of another arson wildfire in late May when the auto mechanic told her he had started the blaze. She testified that she threatened to leave him if he didn't stop setting fires.
Oyler's second cousin also testified that Oyler told her he spent the night of Oct. 21 casing a mountain in the Banning area for a good spot to set a fire and said he set "some small fires" there the next day, cousin Jill Frame testified.
Prosecutors allege Oyler set the fires in the Banning Pass area using devices made of wooden stick matches and Marlboro cigarettes. Investigators have said that they were able to match Oyler's DNA with samples from cigarette butts used to start fires on June 9 and June 10, but not to the device used to start the Esperanza blaze.
Firefighters Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, and Pablo Cerda, 23, were overrun by flames Oct. 26 while protecting a home. Some 10,000 people attended their memorial service.