RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Prosecutors who charged a man with setting a wildfire that killed five firefighters say they have overwhelming evidence against him, despite the difficulty of proving arson cases.
The attorney for Raymond Lee Oyler, however, insists his client has an "airtight alibi" for the night the blaze was set and points out that prosecutors haven't made public any evidence directly linking him to the fire.
Attorneys watching the case say it's unusual for the district attorney's office to be so adamant about its case so early in the prosecution, particularly in an arson investigation. Arsons are challenging to prove because evidence often burns and suspects can be miles away creating an alibi by the time anyone notices flames.
"It's unusual for a DA to speak in such absolute terms," said Steve Harmon, a Riverside defense attorney who's handled arson cases. "I've heard, 'We have a strong case' or 'We are building a strong case,' but never 'overwhelming.'"
Within hours of its start on Oct. 26, the Esperanza Fire killed five members of San Bernardino National Forest's Engine 57. It also destroyed dozens of homes in the region 90 miles east of Los Angeles.
Oyler, 36, is charged with multiple counts of murder and arson and could receive the death penalty if convicted. He also is charged with starting 10 other fires in the same area since June. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
His attorney, Mark McDonald, said media attention and anger generated by the fire prompted prosecutors to rush their arrest. They ended up with the wrong man, he said.
The night the fire was set, Oyler was home caring for his 7-month-old baby and didn't have access to a car, McDonald said. Oyler's girlfriend and sister and a log of phone calls made on a landline from his apartment support that alibi, he said.
Prosecutors declined to comment on the case, and have revealed little evidence.
But from what's been disclosed so far, legal experts say prosecutors appear to be methodically building a case, using evidence from other fires in which Oyler is charged that share characteristics with the Esperanza blaze.
A police report obtained by The Associated Press and a bail affidavit reveal investigators recovered almost identical incendiary devices at the scene of 10 of the 11 fires, including the Esperanza Fire.
Secret cameras atop utility poles caught images of Oyler's car leaving the scene of the 11th fire, which was set by a "hand-held open flame device," the report said. It also said Oyler told investigators he drove to a spot near where the fire started on the night it was set to watch the flames.
At 10 of the fires, investigators recovered remains of incendiary devices: five to seven paper or wood matches wrapped around a cigarette using duct tape or a rubber band. The arsonist lit the cigarette, which slowly burned down until it reached the matches and ignited them, sparking a brush fire. The device allows a time delay of up to 11 minutes that arsonists can use to escape and create an alibi.
Investigators recovered DNA from cigarette butts found at the June 9 and June 10 arsons. Those samples matched Oyler's genetic profile, according to the documents.
Thomas Fee, president of the International Association of Arson Investigators, said the DNA evidence could be key to linking Oyler to the other blazes. That DNA allows prosecutors to focus on the similarities between the cigarette-and-match devices used at the June blazes and the one used at the Esperanza Fire.
The way the incendiary devices were constructed can be used to show that the same person crafted them all — a so-called "arsonist's signature," said Fee, who isn't involved in the Oyler case. The signature can be as subtle as the location of the matches on the cigarette's stem or more obvious, such as the brand of cigarette used, he said.
Prosecutors have used similarities between incendiary devices to solve at least one other high-profile arson spree. In that case, a California arson investigator named John Orr was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 1984 killings of four people in one of multiple arsons set over the course of years.
Fee said investigators found a fingerprint on the paper used in one device and linked Orr to other fires by proving he had used the same paper in some of the other devices. Investigators used that evidence to obtain search warrants for Orr's house, where they found videos of the fires taken before fire crews arrived and a manuscript that included details about the blazes that only investigators knew.
Peter Gianinni, a defense attorney who represented Orr in the death penalty phase of his trial, said linking an arsonist to a blaze relying only on the "signature" of an incendiary device isn't enough.
"They come up with all kinds of things that they claim are unique because the whole idea is to establish the uniqueness of the device," he said. "But I don't think it's enough."
So far, prosecutors haven't indicated they have such powerful evidence in the Oyler case. Legal experts, however, say the evidence that has been disclosed so far shows they may be off to a good start.
"I am very reluctant to draw any inference about the weaknesses in their case from the fact that they are being quiet about it," said Robert Weisberg, director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford University. "They're inviting this kind of skepticism about the strength of their case, but there are situations like this where it turns out they have a fabulous case."