Suspect in Esperanza Arson Says He Watched But Didn't Start Fire
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A man charged with arson and murder in a massive wildfire that killed five firefighters said he drove to a spot to watch the blaze but didn't start it, a police report shows.
Raymond Lee Oyler told investigators he had been gambling at Morongo Indian Casino & Spa, then stopped at a Shell gas station before "traveling toward the Esperanza fire to watch it," according to the report, which summarizes Oyler's interviews with police.
The report, obtained by The Associated Press, says Oyler took an exit onto surface streets that would have placed him close to the spot where the fire was ignited, though it does not specify exactly where he stopped.
Oyler said he had nothing to do with the crime when he spoke to investigators on Oct. 27, the day after the Esperanza fire began.
The report was given to AP by a person with knowledge of the investigation who insisted on anonymity because all documents in the case have been sealed.
Oyler was charged Nov. 2 with multiple counts of murder and arson, and he could face the death penalty. He also is charged with starting 10 other fires in the same area since early June.
Investigators pulled surveillance video from the casino and the gas station and did not find images of Oyler at either location during the times he said he was there, according to the report.
The fire charred more than 60 square miles about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The firefighters died when they were overrun by flames as they tried to protect a house in Twin Pines.
Oyler's lawyer, Mark McDonald, said his client watched the fire. But he said Oyler was part of a crowd of dozens of people outside the casino who had gathered to watch the flames race up the hillside on the other side of Interstate 10. He said prosecutors did not find images of Oyler at the casino or the gas station because he was actually there several hours later, at around 3:30 a.m.
When the fire erupted, McDonald said, Oyler was at home with his 7-month-old baby and had no access to a car because his girlfriend was shopping for baby supplies. He said his client's whereabouts could be verified by his girlfriend and sister, and by a record of phone calls he placed from his house.
Michael Hestrin, a Riverside County deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, declined to comment Wednesday.
The report says investigators recovered a hand-held lighter, two large empty gas cans, a wig, cans of spray paint and a slingshot that appeared to have been used to launch a burning item.
McDonald said the slingshot was a toy that Oyler confiscated earlier from his nephew. He said the wig belonged to a teenage girl who had left it in Oyler's car after a school skit.
A bail affidavit said investigators found incendiary devices made of wood matches and a cigarette at the scene of the June 9 and June 10 arson fires that contained DNA matching Oyler's genetic profile.
The report shows investigators found nearly identical devices at all the fires but one. Those devices consisted of between five and seven wood or paper matches arranged around a cigarette -- often a Marlboro -- and sometimes secured with duct tape or rubber bands.