Esperanza fire trial update, January 28

The Press-Enterprise has an update about the trial for Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of arson and murder in the 2006 fire that resulted in the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in southern California.

Photos of the charred remains of three firefighters were shown to the jurors, a CalFire arson investigator was questioned, and it was pointed out that the house that the firefighters were protecting had been determined to be indefensible according to a 2002 fire-risk map created by CalFire/Riverside County fire Department.

Esperanza fire trial begins

After the last two alternate jurors were selected this morning the actual trial began for Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of 45 counts of murder and arson, including starting the October, 2006 Esperanza fire that overran and killed the 5-person crew of Engine 57 of the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California. Both attorneys made their opening statements today and the first witness was questioned, CalFire Battalion Chief Andrew Bennett.

The prosecutor expects to call about 100 witnesses in this trial which is expected to last at least 40 days. The jury trial is in recess until Monday at 9 a.m.

The Press-Enterprise had numerous brief updates today, and the San Diego Union also has an article about the trial written by an Associated Press reporter. The P-E will have “full coverage” of the trial in Fridays’ edition.

Is anyone attending this trial other than reporters and the families of the deceased firefighters? If so, contact me.

Esperanza fire suspect may have set 46 fires

The suspect charged with murder for setting the Esperanza fire that killed all five members of the crew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 in southern California in 2006 may have set twice as many fires as he is charged with. This information became available when a 30-page brief was filed on Monday, which spells out some of the details of the prosecution’s case against Raymond Lee Oyler.

Raymond Lee Oyler, Press-Enterprise photo

He is charged with setting 23 fires, but according to the brief may have set another 23. The judge in the case, W. Charles Morgan, will decide on Friday if the jury will be allowed to hear evidence about all 46 fires.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Press-Enterprise:

Fire by fire, the document says, Oyler improved his skills as an arsonist, setting bigger and more stubborn fires with improved cigarette-and-match devices on terrain increasingly more conducive to spreading a fire.

When Oyler told cousin Jill Frame just before the Esperanza Fire that that he wanted to “burn down the mountain,” he was by that time “a proficient and deadly arsonist. He was confident and even cock-sure as he arrogantly predicted that he could start a devastating fire at will,” the document said.

The brief reveals background evidence, investigation details and, in the case of three fires, witnesses.

The brief analyzes the time of the fires; describes forensic evidence that matched tire tracks from Oyler’s car to one fire; and includes test results that matchsticks from several fires were identical.

Only by looking at all 46 fires, prosecutors contend, will jurors “understand how the defendant taught himself the skill of using grassland fires as a weapon of mass destruction,” Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin wrote in the brief.

[…]

The document also said tests showed that the wooden matches used to set several fires were chemically identical to each other and concluded they came from the same box, and some were identical to matches found in boxes taken from the home of Breazile’s mother.

DNA samples from cigarette butts used for arson devices in fires on June 9 and 10, 2006, matched Oyler’s DNA, prosecutors said.

The brief also reveals prosecutors have witnesses for three of the fires.

[…]

The 23 newly disclosed fires are often on the same day and near the same location as fires in the complaint against Oyler.

On Oct. 26, the day of the Esperanza Fire, prosecutors say Oyler set four fires, but is charged only with the deadly blaze that started at 1:11 a.m. Other small, quickly extinguished fires were set at 4:11 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Oyler checked into work at 7:52 a.m.

By then the Esperanza Fire was heading up the San Jacinto Mountains — and shortly after 8 a.m. it overtook the five firefighters of Engine 57 as they defended a home near Twin Pines.

Four of the firefighters — Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto — died at the scene. The fifth, Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley, died Oct. 31.

The fire burned 43,000 acres and destroyed 39 homes.

The final Oct. 26 arson fire was at 5:06 p.m., about nine hours after the four firefighters’ deaths. It burned less than half an acre.

USFS employee investigated for arson in Esperanza fire area

The Press-Enterprise has a stunning article about a southern California U. S. Forest Service Fire Prevention Technician (FPT), Michael Karl McNeil, 35, who was investigated for arson at several places where he has worked.

The newspaper obtained a copy of a confidential July 2008 report that formed the basis for their lengthy, carefully worded article which says four of the fires for which the FPT was investigated were the same fires that match the dates and circumstances of fires that are associated with Raymond Lee Oyler, who has been charged with setting the 2006 Esperanza fire that resulted in the deaths of five firefighters on Engine 57 of the San Bernardino National Forest. However, investigators determined that McNeil was not responsible for the Esperanza fire.

It appears that two arsonists may have been working in the same general area in 2006, the Banning Pass area. This may complicate the prosecution’s case against Oyler during his trial for the Esperanza fire which begins January 5. His defense attorney is already claiming that “McNeil is a viable suspect” in some of the fires for which Oyler is charged.

McNeil has worked at the following locations:

  • 1996, Utah, volunteer firefighter
  • 2001-2002, Angeles National Forest, firefighter
  • 2003-2004, U.S. Fish and Wildlife service; the report is vague about this employment. It does not state there was an increase in arson fires, but that “his employment with the agency ended with a termination and settlement agreement that prohibited supervisors and co-workers from discussing McNeil.”
  • 2005-2006, San Bernardino National Forest, Fire Prevention Technician at the Banning Pass station.

The Utah, Angeles National Forest, and San Bernardino National Forest locations had very high arson rates while he worked there.

His last job with the USFS was with the Lassen National Forest in northern California, where in 2007 he was promoted into an Assistant Fire Management Officer position. In June of this year he was placed on leave without pay status.

McNeil has a checkered past. He pled guilty to a felony criminal-threat in 1998 and failed to disclose it on his USFS applications.

In August he was arrested by Los Angeles County authorities where he is being held on a 36-count arson and terrorist threat complaint. Bail has been set at $2.8 million.

The Los Angeles County case includes a list of threatening McNeil e-mails to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective investigating the case, and Lassen County officials, including two judges, the district attorney and the public defender. The report also says McNeil set fire to his father’s South San Gabriel home.

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All I can say is: Holy Crap. Read the article–I only hit the high points. McNeil is being held on 36 counts of arson and terrorist threats. Any arson is disturbing and potentially fatal, as the Esperanza fire proved. McNeil may or may not be found guilty, but firefighter-arson is something that horrifies other firefighters.

Esperanza Fire: One Trial or Six?

The 5-person crew of Engine 57 from the San Bernardino National Forest was killed while trying to protect a house during the Esperanza Fire in Southern California on October 26, 2006.

From the Press-Enterprise :

“Raymond Lee Oyler, charged with murder and arson in the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters, wants the 45 charges against him divided into six separate trials.“Very weak charges have been joined with particularly strong ones,” Mark R. McDonald, Oyler’s attorney, argues in the motion filed Friday.

The defense attorney claims putting all the charges in one trial, especially when some carry a death penalty, “will substantially prejudice Mr. Oyler in his right to a fair trial.”

The motion, which will be heard March 21, “is not unusual; it’s an effort to sever the capital counts from the non-capital counts,” said Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin. He said he will file a written response with Riverside County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Prevost.

McDonald argues that Oyler should face six separate cases with the charges arranged on the types of evidence gathered from May through October 2006, when 62 fires struck the Banning Pass area.

Oyler is charged with starting 23 of them. He also faces five murder counts and 17 charges of using a device to commit arson.

He was arrested shortly the deadly Esperanza Fire, which began Oct. 26, 2006. Arson investigators said the 43,000-acre blaze was started by a device made of six wooden matches attached to a lit cigarette with a rubber band.

Driven by Santa Ana winds, the fire moved from its 1 a.m. flashpoint near Cabazon up the side of the San Jacinto Mountains. The five firefighters who perished were trapped by flames as they defended a home.

During Oyler’s preliminary hearing last year, investigators described six distinct devices used to set the fires the former Beaumont mechanic is charged with.

“Only two of the fires bear any forensic connection to Mr. Oyler,” McDonald argues. DNA was collected from the remains of cigarettes laid across wooden matchsticks on arson fires set June 9 and 10, 2006, in the Banning Pass area.

McDonald wants the case broken down into cigarettes placed over matches; matches bound by a rubber band to a cigarette (including the Esperanza Fire); “open flame device” fires which investigators declared arson by process of elimination; wooden matches; cigarette-and-paper match devices; and matches affixed to a cigarette with a strip of duct tape.

Oyler, 37, remains in custody without bail. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.”

OSHA and U.S. Forest Service Reach Settlement About Esperanza Fire

Esperanza fire OverviewThe Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Forest Service have reached a settlement which modifies some of the “serious violations” that OSHA found after the Oct. 26, 2006 fire in which the five members of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 were killed during a burn over.

According to the Press-Enterprise:

“Under the settlement, two of the six violations were withdrawn and the four others were amended, said Jason Kirchner, public affairs specialist for the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service.

Kirchner said the main issue for fire officials was that OSHA initially viewed some firefighting guidelines as safety rules that had been broken.

“We felt it was an incorrect assessment,” Kirchner said. “They were not intended to be unbreakable rules. They are tools to help evaluate the situation and make decisions.”

Kirchner said the remaining four serious violations have been addressed in the Esperanza Accident Review Board Action Plan that was devised by the Forest Service.

The serious violations showed the fire agency did not “furnish places and conditions of employment that were free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm …”

It noted that instructions from the branch director were either “poorly communicated, or misunderstood” by firefighters. Firefighters were not equipped with maps to familiarize themselves with the area and terrain. The report also noted that the firefighters were ordered to provide structure protection and ended up directly in the path of the strong winds and fire, resulting in the fatal burnover of their fire engine.”

The crew of Engine 57: Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Jason McKay, 27, of Apple Valley; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; and Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.

(photo is from the official USFS/CalFire Factual Report)

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UPDATE November 12, 2013:

Esperanza Fire Factual Report, and the USDA Office of Inspector General’s Report on the fire.