A convicted arsonist was sentenced to death Friday for setting a Southern California wildfire that claimed the lives of five federal firefighters as they struggled to defend a rural home from raging wind-driven flames.
Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, was found guilty in March of five counts of first-degree murder for setting the Oct. 26, 2006 blaze about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.
"After evaluating the same evidence that the jury had heard and going through that, I find that the aggravating circumstances do outweigh the mitigating circumstances," Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan said.
"In particular, Mr. Oyler set on a mission ... to wreak havoc in this county by setting fires by his own design for his own purposes and as proven by the evidence he became more and more proficient," Morgan said. "He knew that young men and women would put their lives on the line to protect other people and property and he continued anyway."
The firefighters' deaths stunned the region and some 10,000 people attended the memorial service for Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, and Pablo Cerda, 23.
'He stole something from us'
Relatives of the victims addressed the court during the sentencing hearing.
"The damage done to our family can never be repaired," said Josh McClean, brother of Jess McClean. "He stole something from us that he cannot repay. To sit in the courtroom and watch the defendant smile and wave to his family, that's something that we no longer have the opportunity to do."
McKay's grandmother, Penny Reese, recalled the day her grandson was born.
"His little hand shot right up in the air and the doctor's all laughed and said he's waving to the world, he's going to be something some day and you know they were right. ... To know him, was to love him."
Oyler, a former auto mechanic with a young daughter, was also convicted of 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device for a rash of blazes in the area that year.
One of his daughters, Heather, 22, wept when the sentence was pronounced.
"My dad is not a bad guy. He's not bad at all," she said. "He loves us and he wishes we didn't have to go through this."
Overrun by flames
The fatal blaze began on a hillside in the town of Cabazon and spread quickly from a valley floor up the north side of the mountains to the widely dispersed rural community of Twin Pines.
There, the fire overran the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57 as the men tried to defend an unoccupied home at the top of a steep hill. 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.
The blaze, known as the Esperanza Fire, also destroyed 34 homes and 20 outbuildings and charred nearly 70 square miles of terrain.
Witnesses testified during the trial that footprints of dropped gear at the scene indicate that at least one firefighter tried to run from the flames and fled for about 30 seconds before he was overcome.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin told jurors during the trial that in their final minutes the firefighters faced flames that were 70 feet high, winds up to 40 mph and temperatures that reached 1,300 degrees.
"It's been a long road," Hestrin said after the sentencing. "The investigators did such a great job and the jury did a great job."
Defense attorney Mark McDonald said that the sentencing decision had been expected.
Asked how Oyler has reacted, McDonald said, "He's been fine with this whole thing since he got over the initial verdict."
Oyler's brother, Jeff, 37, said his brother has been on medication for depression.
"We feel just the like the firefighters' families feel," Jeff Oyler said. "My heart goes out to them also, you know."
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