Esperanza fire trial, March 11 update

Today will be the second day of the penalty hearing to determine if Raymond Oyler will receive the death penalty or prison time for setting the Esperanza fire which resulted in the deaths of five firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service in southern California in 2006.

As Wildfire Today reported yesterday, the proceedings on Tuesday were halted after a request from Oyler’s attorneys for a psychological evaluation of their client which was prompted by Oyler’s odd behavior. The judge ordered that the results of the doctor’s exam be presented Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. The jury will return at 1:30 p.m.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Press-Enterprise about Tuesday’s court proceedings:

Oyler’s lead counsel, Mark McDonald, said Oyler’s behavior was “new since yesterday,” and that he had not seen any evidence of mental deficiency or defect in Oyler in the more than two years he has been working with him.

“It’s a distraction to me,” McDonald said of Oyler’s behavior. “Whether voluntarily or involuntarily, he is hurting his own cause in front of this jury.”

Oyler takes seven medications to treat high blood pressure, depression, stomach upset and tremors, Morgan said in court. Oyler began behaving oddly Monday and it continued Tuesday, with the defendant audibly muttering to himself. His head and shoulders moved suddenly from time to time.

Thomas K. Eckhardt, the defense lawyer who sits next to Oyler, asked for an in-chambers conference to discuss a “medical issue” before the jurors returned from their mid-morning break. After the closed meeting, Morgan called the jurors in and dismissed them for the rest of the day.

Oyler, 38, was convicted Friday of five counts of murder and all but three of the 40 arson-related counts against him. Jurors began hearing the penalty phase Tuesday. They can recommend a sentence of either death or life without parole. Two weeks of testimony are expected.

U.S. Forest Service battalion chiefs Christopher Fogle and Richard Gearhart recalled the scene on Oct. 26, 2006, when the Esperanza Fire swept over the five men of Engine 57 in the San Jacinto Mountains community of Twin Pines.

They recounted witnessing the burn-over, the desperate effort to reach Engine 57 by radio and efforts by them and others to reach the burn area by engine or by foot.

They talked about the horror of finding the badly burned men, of having to extinguish the flames on the bodies of two of their dead comrades — one by using water from canteens — and of the desperate efforts to save the two survivors who would eventually die from their burns.

During their morning testimony, family members of the firefighters who died rushed from the courtroom in anguish. Jurors were moved to tears.

Fogle and Gearhart were captains of their own engine companies at the time. Along with Engine 57, they had been deployed in the early hours of the fire to assist in evacuation and home protection. Five Forest Service engines were involved in the operation.

Fogle said he was a close friend of Loutzenhiser. Both men lived in Idyllwild and were active in community sports together, including Little League baseball. During testimony Tuesday, Fogle called him by his nickname, “Lotzy.”

Fogle, who testified first, told of watching the approaching fingers of fire from the main blaze as they raced up the mountainside toward the Twin Pines community where the Forest Service engine crews were working.

One finger of the blaze swept “up and over” the home, which was under construction, where Fogle and his crew on Engine 52 were working. His crew took refuge in their engine and escaped injury.

Engine 57 was stationed about a quarter- to a half-mile away and across a ravine from Engine 52. The Engine 57 crew was at an octagon-shape house that overlooked a deep gully that ran to the base of the mountain. Fire was roaring up the gully

Grim Discovery

Fogle said within “three to five seconds” the rushing fire had engulfed the home and the land it was setting on as well as some land behind it. Gearhart recalled that a few minutes later “it was like a flamethrower.”

Fogle said he called on his radio: “Captain 57, Captain 52?” No answer. He asked others in the area to try. No response.

Fogle first tried to get his engine to the octagon house, realized it was still too dangerous, put the engine and the rest of his crew in a safe spot on the road and tried to make his way to the house on foot with his emergency medical technician.

Meanwhile, Gearhart had also seen the overburn and, coming a different way, was able to get on the scene. He saw Pablo Cerda first, and feared the worst. Gearhart called out on his radio, “They’re dead — I think they’re all dead,” Fogle testified.

Gearhart recalled the same moment when he took the stand, then testified, “When I said, ‘They’re dead,’ Pablo moved his arm. He heard me.” Cerda would survive until Oct. 31.

Loutzenhiser also had survived. Gearhart, who found him, prepared Fogle. “They wanted to warn me of Lotzy’s condition,” before he went to him, Fogle said.

“I held his hand and told him it would be OK,” Fogle testified, his voice breaking. Loutzenhiser lived long enough to be evacuated but died shortly after that. Fogle said that as the scope of the tragedy became apparent, he called two ambulances, then four and then asked for a coroner.

The other firefighters, Jess McLean 27, of Beaumont, Jason McKay, 27, of Apple Valley, and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto, were dead at the scene.

UPDATE @ 10:35 PT, March 11

Judge W. Charles Morgan ruled this morning, after reading the report prepared by a psychologist who examined Oyler, that Oyler is mentally competent and the penalty phase of the trial can continue.  The jury is expected to return at 1:30 p.m.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.