Death Penalty Sought for Arsonist

March 17, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Prosecutors on Tuesday urged jurors to recommend the death penalty for a man convicted of murdering five firefighters by igniting a California wildfire because "the punishment has to fit the crime." "He gave them the death penalty that day by his own action and his alone," Riverside County prosecutor Michael Hestrin said in closing arguments of the penalty phase of Raymond Lee Oyler's trial.

"Ray Oyler terrorized an entire community for months and months and it led him to commit these murders," he said.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Oyler, 38, who was convicted earlier this month of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device.

Jurors found the auto mechanic guilty of setting numerous fires in rural areas of Riverside County between May and October 2006, including the deadly fire that killed the five federal firefighters who were defending a rural house.

Oyler's attorneys were to ask the jury later Tuesday to recommend a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Over the last week, prosecutors have shown graphic photos of the firefighters' bodies. Relatives of the victims, firefighters and members of Oyler's family have testified.

Hestrin told jurors that Oyler may not have known the men he killed but knew he had the power to take lives by setting fires and derived pleasure from watching the flames race up the mountains 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

"Ray Oyler is not just a casual arsonist. He wanted to have that responsibility, that power to end people's lives," Hestrin said. "Reckless is flicking a cigarette out of a window on a dry day. This is not reckless. This is murder."

The fatal blaze, known as the Esperanza Fire, roared to life as fierce Santa Ana winds swept through Southern California.

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.

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.

Some 10,000 people attended the memorial service for Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Pablo Cerda, 23, and their captain, Mark Loutzenhiser, 43.

Hestrin told jurors that the fires Oyler set spread panic throughout rural communities in 2006 and will always invoke pain for the victims' relatives. Some sobbed while he spoke.

That means missed birthdays, Christmases, family gatherings, weddings, soccer games and for the youngest, Hoover-Najera, simply the chance to grow up, Hestrin said.

"All that's left is the charred remnants of what these men were," Hestrin said.

Oyler's trial began in January. Prosecutors had charged Oyler with setting numerous fires in rural areas of the county between mid-May 2006 and the Esperanza Fire. Jurors convicted him of all but three arson counts on which they deadlocked.

Last week, defense attorneys requested a mental evaluation after noticing a change in Oyler's behavior after the verdict, but Judge W. Charles Morgan ruled him mentally competent after an evaluation by a psychologist.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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