Death Recommended for Arsonist Behind California Wildfire That Killed Firefighters

A jury recommended the death penalty Wednesday for a man convicted of murdering five federal firefighters who were overrun by one of several wildfires he ignited in Southern California in 2006.

Jurors took less than a day to decide that Raymond Lee Oyler deserved to die. Prosecutors cited the horrific pain the fire crew suffered and the terror the auto mechanic's fires caused in rural areas of Riverside County.

After the verdict was announced, Oyler's daughter echoed his lawyers' claim that he never intended to kill anyone.

"That was not in his mind. My dad is not this monster they paint him to be," 21-year-old Heather Oyler said outside the courtroom.

Oyler, 38, was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device. At sentencing, set for April 3, the judge still could give him the punishment the defense had urged jurors to choose: life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutor Michael Hestrin told jurors in closing arguments of the trial's penalty phase that Oyler was not a casual arsonist but instead sought the power to end people's lives.

Oyler was convicted of setting numerous fires in rural areas of Riverside County in 2006. The fatal blaze, known as the Esperanza Fire, roared to life that October as fierce Santa Ana winds swept through valleys and mountains about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

Jurors began penalty phase deliberations when closing arguments ended Tuesday afternoon.

The crew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 was overwhelmed after deploying to protect an unoccupied house perched at the top of a steep drainage in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Three firefighters died there and a fourth died soon after at a hospital. The fifth died five days later, the same day Oyler was arrested.

Prosecutors showed jurors graphic photos of the firefighters: Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Pablo Cerda, 23, and their captain, Mark Loutzenhiser, 43.

Judge W. Charles Morgan previously ruled Oyler mentally competent after an evaluation by a psychologist.