Jurors Recommend Death Penalty for Oyler

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Raymond Lee Oyler, who was convicted of killing five firefighters who died battling the massive Esperanza wildfire that he ignited, will be put to death if a judge accepts the jury's recommendation.

Jurors deliberated about a day before returning their recommendation, which is expected to be formalized by a judge at a future hearing.

Oyler, 38, was convicted March 6 of five counts of first-degree murder for setting the Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza wildfire, which swept over a U.S. Forest Service firefighting team as it tried to defend a home on a remote hilltop.

A jury will recommend that Oyler be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin told jurors Tuesday morning he understood they were faced with a difficult decision, but he said he was "asking for the punishment that's needed, required and necessary for justice."

"I ask without reservation for you to return a death verdict for Raymond Oyler," the prosecutor said. "This man is a conscienceless, brutal and remorseless killer."

In his hourlong statement, Hestrin recounted how Oyler spent six months --May to October 2006 -- setting brush fires in the Banning Pass, all the while endangering the lives of residents and fire crews and causing extensive property damage.

"Raymond Oyler terrorized the community with complete knowledge of what his fires would do and could do," d.

He recalled the ultimate sacrifice of the five members of USFS firefighting crew Engine 57, who perished when flames from the Esperanza blaze swept over them as they tried to defend a home at the end of end of San Gorgonio View Road, north of Twin Pines.

Hestrin called the victims -- USFS Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, and firefighters Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, and Pablo Cerda, 24 -- heroes.

"They were the very definition of selflessness," Hestrin said. "In the words of President Abraham Lincoln, they showed 'the last full measure' of devotion, sacrificing for their communities, loved-ones and each other."

Gesturing to Oyler, Hestrin added, "He took the best of us."

The prosecutor recounted the victims' last moments, what they likely saw and felt as a wall of flames, driven up a hillside amid high winds, crashed into them.

He said the youngest member of the crew, Hoover-Najera, who had only been a full-time firefighter for three weeks, apparently tried to drop and roll several times, probably over a span of 30 seconds, as his flesh was burning.

"He died alone on that embankment," Hestrin said.

Loutzenhiser survived the flames, but was totally disfigured and spent the last hour of his life "in a living hell," said Hestrin.

"He was trapped in a burned body, laying there on a scorched earth, unable to move, listening to his radio nearby squawking," the prosecutor said. "He knew he would never see his daughter again. He knew he was going to die.... It's overwhelming.
"The enormity of the crime -- to say that it warrants death is an affirmation of life and what we hold dear and true."

The Engine 57 crew had deployed to its fateful position less than six hours after the Esperanza blaze started.

The wind-whipped fire raged into the mountain communities of Poppet Flats, Silent Valley and Twin Pines, scorching 41,000 acres and damaging or destroying 54 homes and other structures.

According to testimony, Engine 57 crew members tried to defend an octagon-shaped house that had been evacuated. USFS Battalion Chief Chris Fogle testified that Loutzenhiser positioned his men at the home because there was adequate brush clearance, making it defensible, and a pool where the engine could replenish its water reserves.

The doomed crew was caught in what Fogle described as a "burn-over," in which flames raced up a hillside and swept over the victims before they could take cover.

All but Loutzenhiser and Cerda died at the scene. The captain died less than an hour later. Cerda, suffering from burns to more than 90 percent of his body, remained in a coma until his family had him removed from life support two days later.

Oyler lit the Esperanza wildfire on the southern edge of Cabazon about 1 a.m., during a Santa Ana windstorm. Hestrin argued the defendant knew there would be no air support in the middle of the night to assist fire crews on the ground.

Oyler was also convicted of three dozen counts of arson and possessing incendiary devices connected to 19 other fires in the Banning Pass.

The defense argued that someone else started many of the fires for which Oyler was blamed, pointing to the variety of cigarette-and-match devices used to ignite the blazes.

The penalty phase of the defendant's trial was suspended last Tuesday when attorneys Eckhardt and Mark McDonald notified Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan that Oyler was behaving irrationally.

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