Image: Raymond Lee Oyler
Nick Ut  /  AP
A jury Wednesday recommended the death penalty for Raymond Lee Oyler, shown in court in December 2006.
updated 3/18/2009 9:38:23 PM ET 2009-03-19T01:38:23

A jury recommended the death penalty Wednesday for a man convicted of murdering five federal firefighters who were overrun by one of several wildfires he ignited in Southern California in 2006.

Jurors took less than a day to decide that Raymond Lee Oyler deserved to die. Prosecutors cited the horrific pain the fire crew suffered and the terror the auto mechanic's fires caused in rural areas of Riverside County.

Outside court, Maria Loutzenhiser, the wife of slain fire Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, thanked jurors and prosecutors "for putting an end to everybody's misery and giving everybody peace of mind."

"I'm grateful they put Oyler in jail and that he's there and he can't do this anymore," she said. After the verdict was announced, Oyler's daughter echoed his lawyers' claim that he never intended to kill anyone.

"That was not in his mind. My dad is not this monster they paint him to be," 21-year-old Heather Oyler said outside the courtroom.

Oyler, 38, was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device. At sentencing, set for April 3, the judge still could give him the punishment the defense had urged jurors to choose: life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutor Michael Hestrin told jurors in closing arguments of the trial's penalty phase that Oyler was not a casual arsonist but instead sought the power to end people's lives.

Set numerous fires
Oyler was convicted of setting numerous fires in rural areas of Riverside County in 2006. The fatal blaze, known as the Esperanza Fire, roared to life that October as fierce Santa Ana winds swept through valleys and mountains about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

Jurors began penalty phase deliberations when closing arguments ended Tuesday afternoon.

The jury foreman, who declined to give his name, said the two-month trial was an emotional ordeal but the evidence showed Oyler's guilt and helped persuade the panel he should get the death penalty.

"There were more tears today than any other day," he said. "It's not an easy decision to make."

The foreman choked back tears as he recalled some of the testimony from family members. He hugged several of them outside court.

The crew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 was overwhelmed after deploying to protect an unoccupied house perched at the top of a steep drainage in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Five firefighters died
Three firefighters died there and a fourth died soon after at a hospital. The fifth died five days later, the same day Oyler was arrested.

Prosecutors showed jurors graphic photos of the firefighters: Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Pablo Cerda, 23, and their captain, Mark Loutzenhiser, 43.

"To the man responsible, I harbor no anger, only hope," Hoover-Najera's mother, Gloria Najera-Ayala, said after Wednesday's verdict was announced. "Hope that you will understand the depth of pain you have caused so many families, including your own."

Judge W. Charles Morgan previously ruled Oyler mentally competent after an evaluation by a psychologist.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments