Raymond Lee Oyler, a 38-year-old serial arsonist who lit a brush fire that killed five firefighters as they fought to prevent flames from reaching a home, was sentenced to death by a Riverside County Superior Court judge on Friday.
Judge W. Charles Morgan said before passing sentence that Oyler had set out "to create havoc. He became more and more efficient. He knew young men and woman would put their lives on the line to protect other people and property."
Oyler was convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, and firefighters Pablo Cerda, 24, Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20. The men perished battling the 41,000-acre Esperanza wildfire on Oct. 26, 2006.
A four-man, eight-woman jury spent barely a day deliberating in March before deciding to recommend Oyler receive the death penalty. The jury earlier convicted Oyler of murder, arson and possessing destructive devices.
Morgan had the discretion to reduce Oyler's sentence to life in prison without parole but elected not to do so, despite requests by defense attorneys Mark McDonald and Tom Eckhardt.
Though acknowledging Oyler is an arsonist, the attorneys maintain he did not start the Esperanza blaze.
According to the prosecution, Oyler ignited the wildfire just south of Cabazon in the middle of the night, during a Santa Ana windstorm, which quickly whipped the blaze into an inferno that roared into the mountain communities of Poppet Flats, Silent Valley and Twin Pines.
Fifty-four homes and other structures were destroyed, as well as vehicles. Livestock and wildlife were killed, and a highway was significantly damaged.
Along with Riverside County fire crews, firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service responded to the blaze, including the crew of Engine 57, based in Idyllwild.
Loutzenhiser and his men went into the cauldron around dawn on the morning of the fire, taking a position at the end of San Gorgonio View Road, north of Twin Pines.
The crew deployed around an octagon-shaped house that had been evacuated. According to testimony given in Oyler's two-month trial, Loutzenhiser liked the location because there appeared to be adequate brush clearance, and there was a swimming pool from which the engine could draw water when its reserves ran low.
As the men prepared to defend the property, they were caught in what one witness described as a "burn-over," in which a wall of flame pushed by high winds obliterates everything in its path.
Firefighters who came to the victims' aid moments later described a gruesome scene. None of the men had time to take cover, and several bodies were still burning.
Cerda and Loutzenhiser clung to life, though both had burns to more than 90 percent of their bodies, and their lungs were damaged, according to testimony.
Loutzenhiser died within hours of being taken off the hilltop. Cerda underwent surgery and remained in a coma for two days until his family decided to take him off life support.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin said Oyler intentionally endangered fire crews' lives, lighting a fire in the dark of night amid furious winds, knowing full well air support would not be available.
The prosecutor said the defendant had been working up to lighting a monster fire throughout 2006, beginning with the first one- and two-acre blazes he set in mid-May of that year.
Witnesses described seeing a man of Oyler's description or a weather-beaten Ford Taurus the defendant owned leaving the scene of a number of fires. Forensic evidence collected from cigarettes used to ignite two June 2006 fires near Banning matched Oyler's DNA, according to testimony.
On the morning of the Esperanza blaze, a trucker recalled chatting with Oyler at a Cabazon gas station where the flames were clearly visible. The witness said Oyler told him the fire was behaving "just how I thought it would."
Oyler denied setting any of the fires. He told a sheriff's investigator that on the night of the Esperanza blaze, he split his time gambling at an Indian casino near Cabazon and taking care of his then-infant daughter at the family's Beaumont apartment.