A prosecutor told a jury Thursday that a 38-year-old auto mechanic was "a man bent on destruction" who unleashed disaster by igniting a wind-driven wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in 2006.
The characterization of defendant Raymond Lee Oyler was given to the nine-woman, three-man jury by Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin in opening statements of the potential death-penalty trial.
Oyler has pleaded not guilty to 45 counts including murder and arson. Defense attorney Mark McDonald was to respond to the prosecution statement later.
Oyler claims he had been watching his 7-month-old baby at home and then went to a casino when the Esperanza fire began on Oct. 26, 2006, as fierce Santa Ana winds roared through Southern California.
Hestrin told jurors that Oyler was a serial arsonist who set 25 blazes, including the Esperanza fire, sometimes as many as three a day during mid-to-late 2006.
Oyler became more adept at his craft and liked to listen to a police scanner and kept news articles about fires, Hestrin said.
This case "is about a man bent on destruction, about a man wanting to be so important he unleashed disaster on five men," Hestrin said in front of a packed courtroom.
The crew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 was overrun by flames while defending an unoccupied, isolated home in the San Jacinto Mountains about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.
Hestrin showed aerial pictures of the charred fire truck and said firefighters dealt with flames that were 70 feet high, winds up to 40 mph and temperatures that reached 1,300 degrees. The fire was "a monster" that "rolled across the hills like water," the prosecutor said.
"What this fire did to them, their bodies, the violence is unimaginable," he said.
Prosecutors said at most of the sites where fires were set, authorities found wooden matches bundled around or laid over a cigarette with rubber bands or duct tape. The cigarette would be lit as a "timing device," allowing an average of 10 minutes before the matches would be sparked, Hestrin said.
He added Oyler is tied to two of the fires through DNA evidence found where the blazes started. Because fire officials feared they had a serial arsonist roaming through Riverside County, hidden cameras were placed on Oct. 22, 2006, at several sites where they believed fires might erupt.
Hestrin said during one of the fires Oyler is suspected of starting, the camera recorded the defendant's brown, oxidized Ford Taurus coming into and leaving the area. Investigators searched the Taurus and found a wig, clothing and a slingshot that appeared to have burn marks on it, Hestrin said.
Jurors also can expect to hear testimony from Oyler's girlfriend, who Hestrin says knew about Oyler's arson affliction and told him to quit or they would break up, and a cousin who recalls Oyler telling her he has to "set the hill on fire."
The jury will also hear a truck driver who had a conversation with Oyler at a gas station that had a good view of the Esperanza fire. Hestrin said that witness claims the defendant told him, "The fire is acting just as I thought it would."
On the defense side, McDonald wants to admit into evidence that a Forest Service investigation found another possible arsonist -- a firefighter who worked in the area when the suspicious fires started.
The Esperanza fire was reported at 1:11 a.m. PDT. According to a report summarizing Oyler's interviews with police, he told investigators that after watching the baby at home in the city of Banning he went gambling at the Morongo Indian Casino & Spa, then stopped at a gas station before heading toward the Esperanza fire to watch it.
The fire began on a hillside in the town of Cabazon and spread quickly from a valley floor up the north side of the mountains to the widely dispersed rural community of Twin Pines at an elevation of about 4,000 feet.
Engine 57's crew was overrun about 7:15 a.m. as they defended a home perched at the top of a steep drainage. 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.
Some 10,000 people attended the memorial service for Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, and Pablo Cerda, 23.
The blaze also destroyed 34 homes and 20 outbuildings.