The book that John N. Maclean has been working on for years about the Esperanza Fire has been published. Titled The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, it covers the 2006 wildfire that Raymond Oyler lit which raced up a canyon in southern California and overran the five-person crew of U.S. Forest Service engine 57. All five crewmembers, who were protecting an unoccupied house, were killed. Oyler was found guilty of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson, and 17 counts of using an incendiary device to start fires. He was sentenced to death.
The firefighters who died were engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, of Idyllwild; engine operator Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; assistant engine operator Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; and firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.
This extraordinary event, and the trial that followed, had a significant impact on many of us in the fire service.
Mr. Maclean’s other books about wildland fire, include Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal, and Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire (out of print but may be available at your local book store or at Mr. Maclean’s web site).
The new book, The Esperanza Fire, can be purchased now directly from Mr. Maclean’s web site, and each book will be personally autographed by him. It is also available at Amazon, but without the autograph. It may not be at your local book store until February 12.
If Mr. Maclean’s other books and the excerpt below are any indication, this new one will be difficult to put down.
With the permission of Mr. Maclean and the publisher, Counterpoint Press, we have an excerpt from the book below.
Introduction to the excerpt, written by John N. Maclean:
Just after midnight on October 26, 2006, an arsonist set a bundle of matches and a Marlboro cigarette, held together by a rubber band, into a patch of grass along a remote roadway in the Banning Pass, which connects Los Angeles with the desert communities to the east. The arsonist drove away, the cigarette burned down and ignited the matches, and the grass caught fire. That was the start of the Esperanza Fire, which eventually burned over 40,000 acres and destroyed over 30 homes and other structures. It also claimed the lives of the five-man crew of Forest Service Engine 57. The arson investigation led to the capital murder trial of Raymond Oyler, who was found guilty of arson and murder and sentenced to death.
The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, by John N Maclean, offers a vivid recounting of the fire and the criminal investigation, based on the accounts of those who were there. In advance reviews, Wildfire Magazine calls Maclean’s work “poetic and impeccably reported.” The Forestry Source, published by the Society of American Foresters, noted, “It reads like a taut murder mystery, a whodunit novel you can’t put down.” (The book’s official publication date is Feb. 12.)
What follows is an excerpt that tells how Detective Scott Michaels of the Riverside County Sheriff’s homicide unit tracked down Oyler and became convinced that he had found the arsonist.
From The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, by John N. Maclean
On Friday, October 27, the arson investigation went into full swing, and the Esperanza Fire burned virtually unchecked. The blaze had grown overnight to 24,000 acres, more than thirty-seven square miles; firefighters had built line around only 5 percent of the perimeter. The flames threatened Lamb Canyon and Highway 79, a major artery that roughly parallels Highway 243 to the west at a distance ranging from a half dozen to a dozen miles. Though the Santa Ana continued to blow, there was one piece of good news: weather forecasters predicted diminishing winds for the next day, Saturday.
“Breaking news at 8:55: Just moments ago, the U.S. Forest Service identified the firefighters who were overrun by flames: four of them killed; one injured,” a CBS affiliate station announced. Cerda was reported in “grave condition,” with burns over 95 percent of his body. The CBS announcer rattled off more excited headlines: “Mile after mile on fire. Hundreds forced from their homes in new evacuations. The Esperanza Fire is out of control. The battle to contain the deadliest fire in the past five years grows.” The Fox News affiliate exclaimed, “More than just a monster blaze—it’s murder!”
Detective Scott Michaels started his drive early from home to the Banning Pass, knowing the smoke would slow the morning traffic. “It was like a war zone out there,” Michaels said. He was eager to check more license numbers from the pole camera photos taken at the Mias Canyon Fire, where an arson fire had burned two days before Esperanza, especially the one from the battered Ford Taurus. Michaels picked up his partner, Gary LeClair, and they headed for the Banning auto salvage shop that was registered as owner of the Taurus. They met the shop owner, Charlie Price, at 10:05 AM, according to Michaels’ log.
Price remembered buying the Taurus about a year earlier from “a white kid with blond hair.” The youngster had been in a hurry and had offered the vehicle cheap, for $50. Price had sold it later the same day for $100 to an employee named Ray, but he couldn’t remember Ray’s last name. “I felt sorry for him,” Price said. “For the first month, he worked out pretty good.” Later, Price said, he had begun to suspect Ray of stealing items from the shop and had fired him. He had heard that Ray had found a job at another auto shop, this one in Beaumont.
Michaels and LeClair headed for the place, Highland Springs Automotive. When they arrived there at about 10:50 AM, they were startled—and excited—to see parked across the street a Ford Taurus matching the one in the pole camera photo. As they approached the car on foot, they saw someone asleep in the backseat. Figuring this could be their man, the detectives rousted the sleeper, who emerged from the car disheveled and alarmed.
While LeClair talked to the sleeper, Michaels looked inside the car. “Something was off about it,” Michaels said, a description he would use repeatedly during the investigation, as though an extra sense was signaling him that something was wrong. Cigarette butts littered the car floor; the Cal Fire arson investigators had said that cigarettes had been used in the arson devices recovered from the Banning Pass series. The vehicle’s right front tire was flat and the back window broken; it was a car with a careless owner, and that fit too.
The sleeper identified himself as Daniel Contreras and said a friend named Ray Oyler owned the Taurus. He didn’t know where Oyler was, but he felt sure that his friend Ray wouldn’t mind if he slept in his car; it was that kind of relationship. “Contreras was odd and disjointed, but he was also upfront and confident,” Michaels said.
The questioning drew the attention of workers at the auto shop across the street. “We were in civilian clothes, but it was obvious we were cops,” Michaels said. After a few minutes, one of the workers beckoned to Michaels, who went over. The man handed Michaels a telephone with a worried Raymond Oyler on the other end of the line. Oyler’s coworkers had called to alert him to the police interest in his car. When Oyler asked what was going on, Michaels again had the feeling that something was off.
Contreras was the natural suspect, a homeless drifter who had been sleeping rough in a car linked to an arson fire. Contreras, however, was able to explain himself in an apparently candid manner. Oyler, to the contrary, sounded frightened and dumbfounded that a police officer would want to question him. “Oyler wasn’t communicating right; he seemed to be hiding something,” the detective said. Oyler agreed to meet with the detectives, however, and gave Michaels his home address, a few blocks away. Michaels and LeClair decided to let Contreras go, though he was still a suspect. They took photos of him and directed him to a local shelter.
It was about noon when the detectives arrived at the address Oyler had given them. It was a gated blue-collar complex in Beaumont called the Noble Creek Apartments. The grounds were clean, the lawns well trimmed, the modest low-rise buildings in apparent good repair. Across the street from the complex was an open field where, Michaels would learn later, one of the Banning Pass arson fires had been started more than a month earlier. Oyler lived in apartment 28, a second-story unit at the rear of the complex. He shared the apartment with his girlfriend, Crystal Breazile, and their infant daughter, Diamond Belle.
When Michaels and LeClair climbed the stairs to Oyler’s apartment, they noticed that a large ashtray on the outside landing was filled with Marlboro cigarette butts, the same brand used in the Banning Pass arson devices. When Oyler opened the door to Michaels’ knock, the detective went on high alert. Oyler had “full sleeve” tattoos on both arms: red and black flames interspersed with death’s head skulls. Oyler later proudly described his arm “art” to a jailer as a “skull, a snake, and some flames, and skulls, a bunch of those skulls . . . eyeballs.” The tattoos were a telltale, but there was more. Over Oyler’s shoulder, Michaels could see a poster in the apartment that showed a faceless devil made of flames stretching out a bony, skeletal hand, a poster for a hard-core hip-hop group called Insane Clown Posse.
This is the guy! Michaels thought.
UPDATE from Bill, January 23, 2013: there is an interesting article about John Maclean at The Observer.
UPDATE November 12, 2013: