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Suspect in 23 Calif. arson fires pleads not guilty

A man accused of starting a raging California wildfire that killed five firefighters pleaded not guilty Monday to new charges that connect him to 23 arsons.
Arson suspect Oyler appears in Riverside court
Raymond Lee Oyler appears in Superior Court in Riverside, Calif., in December.Mark Avery / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

An auto mechanic accused of setting 23 arson blazes, including a wildfire that killed five firefighters as they tried to protect a home, pleaded not guilty Monday as the first detailed evidence of the fires’ origins came to light.

In court, a state fire investigator described three of the suspected arson fires, all started on May 16 within a few minutes and a few miles of one another.

Each fire started with an incendiary device that included wooden, red-tipped matches bundled around a cigarette with a green rubber band, said Capt. Charlie Dehart of the California Department of Fire and Protection. Two of the devices yielded the remains of a Marlboro Light cigarette, he said.

The wooden stick matches were unusual, Dehart said.

“In my 20 years, I have never seen it,” he said. “They’re just not common. Usually we see paper matches or actual paper matchbook devices.”

Prosecutors believe all three fire are connected to mechanic Raymond Lee Oyler, 36. Sheriff’s reports previously obtained by the Associated Press indicated investigators believed the same person created all the devices used in the fires.

Oyler had already pleaded not guilty to murder and arson in the deadly fire near Banning, where he lived. With the newly added charges, he faces five counts of first-degree murder, 17 counts of using an incendiary device and 23 counts of arson.

He was arrested in October shortly after a wildfire fire raced through the foothills near Banning, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. Firefighters Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; and Pablo Cerda, 23, were overrun by that wildfire on Oct. 26 while protecting a home.

“The evidence is going to show that there was a series of fires, all started by Mr. Oyler, that the devices that Mr. Oyler used had distinct similarities and that there’s an evolution in the devices,” said Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin. “There was also an evolution of locations and terrain that the defendant was choosing as regards to each fire.”

Oyler’s sister, Joanna Oyler, and his girlfriend, Crystal Breazille, were excluded from the courtroom because prosecutors plan to call them as witnesses during the preliminary hearing.

The deadly fire was ignited amid fierce Santa Ana winds and eventually charred more than 60 square miles in the San Jacinto Mountains and adjacent areas in Riverside County, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

A sheriff’s report obtained by the AP last week said Oyler’s cousin told investigators that the suspect spent a night one week before the deadly blaze “casing the area” for a good arson location.

Investigators say Oyler’s girlfriend also told them he wanted to start a fire as “a diversion” so he could get his pit bull out of the Banning Animal Shelter.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald said the cousin was not a credible witness because she had a feud with Oyler and his closest relatives. McDonald also said Oyler’s girlfriend was badgered by investigators and now denies telling them any of the information in the report.