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.
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.