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Man goes on trial in firefighters' arson deaths

Image: The U.S. flag flies at half-staff behind a sign in memory of firefighters who died in the Esperanza fire
The U.S. flag flies at half-staff behind a sign in memory of the firefighters who died in the Esperanza fire, at a roadside memorial outside the U.S. Forest Service Alandale Fire Station on Oct. 28, 2006. Reed Saxon / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some 10,000 mourners turned out for the funeral of five firefighters who died trying to save a home from a raging wildfire, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eulogized them for bravery.

Now, the man charged with being the arsonist who started the fire is going on trial on murder charges Monday and the search for an impartial jury may be difficult.

Prosecutor Michael Hestrin said it could be at least two weeks before any testimony is heard in the trial of Raymond Lee Oyler, who is charged with setting some two dozen fires including the deadly Esperanza fire in 2006 that killed the five well-known firefighters.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald tried to get the trial moved from Riverside County, claiming intense pretrial publicity and "a lynch mob atmosphere" in the community would make it impossible to choose jurors who have no opinions about the case.

Passage of time since deaths
Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan turned down the motion in November, saying the passage of time may have cooled emotions.

"I bet we can find a jury that doesn't even know about the Esperanza fire and the deaths," Morgan said.

Oyler, a 38-year-old auto mechanic, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, 17 counts of using an incendiary device and 23 counts of arson.

He was arrested Oct. 31, 2006, five days after the five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and their engine were overrun by flames as they tried to protect a house in a mountain community about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The blaze charred more than 60 square miles and destroyed 34 homes.

Oyler has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

The prosecution is expected to paint Oyler as a serial arsonist who set fires using red-tipped wooden matches bundled around a cigarette with rubber bands or duct tape. Using expert witnesses, Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin will seek to show the methodology links Oyler to 23 fires.

"The evidence is going to show that there was a series of fires started by Mr. Oyler, that the devices that Mr. Oyler used had distinct similarities, and that there's an evolution in the devices," Hestrin said during a preliminary hearing last March.

He has said more extensive evidence would be presented at the trial but declined to elaborate.

Oyler's lawyer to refute arson claim
Oyler's lawyer, Mark McDonald, will contend that his client was at home with his 7-month-old baby when the Esperanza fire began and had no access to a car at the time because his girlfriend was shopping for baby supplies.

Oyler told investigators he went gambling at the Morongo Indian Casino & Spa later that evening, then stopped at a gas station before going to watch the Esperanza fire, according to a report that summarizes Oyler's interviews with police.

"Mr. Oyler's precise location and activities on the evening of Oct. 25 through the morning of Oct. 26 (2006) are traceable, to the minute, with witness statements and third-party documentary proof," McDonald has said. "He did not have a damned thing to do with the fires he is charged with starting."

McDonald did not return phone calls seeking additional comment.

In pretrial hearings, he has pointed to another man who was questioned by the U.S. Forest Service in connection with a number of fires in the same area. But McDonald complained to the judge that he was unable to get cooperation from the agency.

Fiancee made statement to investigators
A sheriff's report said a cousin of Oyler told investigators that Oyler spent a night one week before the deadly blaze casing the area for a good arson location.

Investigators say Oyler's fiancee also told them he wanted to start a fire as a diversion so he could get his pit bull out of an animal shelter.

McDonald said the cousin was not a credible witness because she had a feud with Oyler, and said the fiancee was badgered by investigators and now denies making the statement.

The fiancee, Crystal Breazile, was called by the prosecution as a hostile witness at the preliminary hearing and testified that she had threatened to leave him if he didn't stop setting fires.