Old Fire arsonist receives death penalty

Old Fire
Rickie Lee Fowler
Rickie Lee Fowler

Rickie Lee Fowler received the death penalty today for starting the 2003 Old fire that destroyed 1,003 homes, burned 91,000 acres, and led to five deaths. He was convicted on August 15 of two arson charges and of murdering the five people who died of heart attacks after their homes burned or while they evacuated during the fire in San Bernardino County, California. When he was convicted, the jury recommended that Fowler be sentenced to death but the judge had the discretion to impose that or life in prison.

This morning Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith, after hearing arguments by attorneys and statements by the victims’ families, confirmed the death penalty for Fowler. The sentence will automatically be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

In the trial, 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.

Old Fire
Old Fire, looking west from Strawberry Peak. Photo taken October 26, 2003 by Dave Schumaker.

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 ignited a road 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 for that was sentenced to three 25-years-to-life prison terms.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

4 thoughts on “Old Fire arsonist receives death penalty”

  1. Given California’s track record of actually executing those under the death penalty, I’m betting that this is really just another case of “life without parole” with taxpayer-funded lawyers appealing for years if not decades into the future, Both will likely die from old age in their 80’s or 90’s unless they are placed in the General Population of the prisons.

      1. DRD – where I live is immaterial to the discussion at hand: California now has 725 individuals awaiting execution, has not executed anyone in 7 years, and the CA Supreme Court Chief Justice thinks it will be at least 3 more years before the process begins again. The State is estimated to be spending $180 MILLION per Year on the Death Penalty.

  2. Please check my comments on the Wildfire Today Facebook page, posted under my page, “Forestry, Fire, Ecology, Economy” – I am interested in more opinions.

    I disagree with the conviction, FYI.

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