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Inmate charged with murder in 2003 Calif. fire

A prison inmate was indicted Tuesday on murder and arson charges in a 2003 Southern California wildfire that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and was linked to a half-dozen heart attack deaths.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A prison inmate was indicted Tuesday on murder and arson charges in a 2003 Southern California wildfire that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and was linked to a half-dozen heart attack deaths.

Rickie Lee Fowler, 28, was indicted on five counts of murder, one count of aggravated arson and one count of arson of an inhabited structure, San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos said.

The murder charges include the special circumstance of murder during the commission of arson, he said.

Ramos said hundreds of people lost their homes, including some prosecutors on his staff.

"Our hearts go out to the thousands of people who were affected by this," he said. "Although justice was delayed, I will tell you justice will not be denied in this case."

Serving time for burglary
Fowler, who is serving time in state prison for burglary, was first interviewed in connection with the fire in February 2004 based on a telephone tip, but there was not enough evidence, Deputy District Attorney Vic Stull said.

The investigation began to gain steam in February 2008, and new evidence was obtained as recently as three weeks ago that allowed prosecutors to identify Fowler as a suspect, said Stull, who took over the case 10 months ago.

Another man, Martin Valdez Jr., was also believed to be a suspect but he was shot and killed in Muscoy in 2006.

Stull said prosecutors were not sure who actually threw a road flare that started the blaze but are confident they have enough evidence.

The statute of limitations on arson would have run out on Oct. 25, Stull said.

Family members of the people killed were relieved but said the charges were not unexpected since authorities had been in contact.

Lisa McDermith, the daughter-in-law of victim James McDermith, said the retired accountant had a heart attack while driving to retrieve a trailer he planned to use to move items from his house.

"We're happy for this, not only for us but for all the families who lost a family member and who lost homes," she said. "He caused a lot of grief to so many people. There will finally be some closure."

In addition to McDermith, the individuals whose deaths are being prosecuted are Charles Howard Cunningham, 93; retired fire captain Chad Leo Williams, 70; Robert Norman Taylor, 54; and Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67.

Siege of wildfires that year
District attorney spokeswoman Susan Mickey didn't know if Fowler had a lawyer. The state Corrections Department said media requests for comment from an inmate can only be made by mail and it is up to the inmate to respond with a telephone call.

Prosecutors have not determined whether they would seek the death penalty if Fowler is convicted, Stull said. Fowler's arraignment is expected within two weeks, after he is transferred from a prison in Lancaster.

The notorious Old Fire was part of a siege of wildfires that year that scorched hundreds of thousands of square miles and burned thousands of homes, forcing residents to flee across a broad swath of the region.

The fire erupted in the Waterman Canyon area of the San Bernardino Mountains above the city of San Bernardino and eventually swept across 90,000 acres, or about 140 square miles.

Although authorities initially linked six fatal heart attacks to the distress of the evacuations, Stull said in one of those cases the victim's widow felt that the attack was not caused by the fire.

Several witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. In late 2004, San Bernardino County authorities said they were focusing on a young man they believed may have been the arsonist and were trying to identify a second man but did not have enough evidence to make arrests.

Stull said neither Fowler nor the other man owned the white van, but he alleged that they had borrowed it. The actual owner was unaware of its involvement.

Debris-laden runoff
On Dec. 25, 2003, 14 people were killed when several inches of rain sent a massive flow of debris-laden runoff rushing down the barren slopes of Waterman Canyon, sweeping away a church camp. Two other people died that day in a debris flow in another fire area.

Stull said murder charges were not possible in the flood deaths because months had elapsed since the fire and there were too many other variables.

The indictment in the Old Fire is the latest effort to solve arson crimes behind destructive and deadly wildfires that plague Southern California, especially in the fall as seasonal Santa Ana winds blow.

On Monday, Los Angeles County authorities charged a homeless man with igniting a tiny August blaze close to where another wildfire broke out several days later and eventually burned over 250 square miles.

Authorities have not called Babatunsin Olukunle, 25, a suspect in the gigantic Station Fire northeast of Los Angeles but have referred to him as the "best lead" in the case. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment.

The Station Fire probe is also a homicide investigation because two firefighters were killed when their vehicle plunged off a mountain road as the blaze approached an inmate firefighting camp.