On Wednesday a jury found Rickie Lee Fowler, 30, guilty of starting the Old fire near San Bernardino, California. The 2003 fire burned 91,000 acres, destroyed 1,003 homes, and is linked to at least five heart attack deaths. In addition to the arson charge, he was convicted of murdering the five people who died of heart attacks after their homes burned or while they evacuated during the fire.
The State employed the same principle used when prosecutors in neighboring Riverside County won a death penalty conviction against Raymond Lee Oyler, an auto mechanic who set the 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five federal firefighters. Oyler is believed to be the first person in the U.S. to be convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in a wildland arson case.
Mr. Fowler was convicted of two counts of arson, along with special circumstances that make him eligible for the death penalty. The penalty phase of the trial will begin Monday.
Before the trial Mr. Fowler said he and three men in a van had intended to rob John Aylward, a person he identified as his godfather, but realized they were too drunk or stoned to pull it off. Instead, they decided to start a fire, as one person testified before a grand jury, “to burn John’s house down”.
In an interview with investigators, Mr. Fowler said he struck the flare and threw it into the vegetation, but corrected himself and said one of the other men in the van struck the flare. In a later interview, he said he intended to strike and throw the flare, but Martin Valdez Jr. took it from him, struck it, and threw it into the brush.
While in prison before the trial, Mr. Fowler was convicted of sodomizing another jail inmate and sentenced to three 25-years-to-life prison terms.