SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — A jury on Wednesday found a California man guilty of murdering five people who had heart attacks after he deliberately started a blaze that ballooned into a massive wildfire.
Jurors in San Bernardino found 30-year-old Rickie Fowler guilty of setting the Old Fire in the foothills above San Bernardino in October 2003 that burned 91,000 acres and torched 1,000 buildings over nine days.
Prosecutors charged Fowler with the murders of five men, ranging in age from 54 to 93, who died from heart attacks after their homes burned to the ground or as they rushed to evacuate. Fowler also was convicted of two counts of arson, along with special circumstances that make him eligible for the death penalty.
That phase of the proceedings is scheduled to begin Monday.
Fowler became a suspect when witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. Investigators acting on a tip interviewed Fowler several months later but didn't have enough evidence to file charges until six years after the fire, when Fowler was in jail on a burglary conviction.
The charges against Fowler signaled a tough new standard for arson cases in a region plagued by wildfires that sometimes claim the lives of firefighters and civilians. Prosecutors declined to discuss the reasons for pursuing murder charges except to say that if someone is killed during a felony, a person involved in that crime would be responsible for the death.
Some who lost their homes in the fire said Fowler ruined hundreds of lives.
"The people who died were the worst of it, but then there was half a town gone," Kevin Ryan, who lost his home in Cedar Glen and now lives in Crestline, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. "It was something I wouldn't wish on anybody, that kind of loss."
Tom Wayman, who lost his own Cedar Glen home, felt compelled to attend the trial.
"It affected me so deeply that I wanted to at least observe the process intended to serve justice, just to see what would happen and to see the accused, Rickie Fowler," Wayman told the San Bernardino Sun. "I wanted to look him in the eye."
Prosecutors said Fowler was angry after a man who had given shelter to his family kicked Fowler out of the home, citing thefts and mistreatment. In closing arguments, supervising deputy district attorney Robert Bulloch called Fowler evil and said he knew details about how the fire began that were not revealed to the public.
Defense attorney Donald Jordan argued that prosecutors focused on Fowler to the exclusion of other evidence and pointed out witness discrepancies about the model and color of the van seen where the fire started.
Prosecutors said Fowler gave authorities a note in 2008 acknowledging he was there when the fire began and had intended to light it but a friend beat him to it. The blaze was one of about a dozen that caused widespread damage throughout Southern California during that month.
Fowler denied in jailhouse interviews in 2009 that he tossed a lit road flare from a van to spark the blaze and said he was badgered into making a confession.
The suspected driver of the van, Martin Valdez Jr., was later shot and killed in an unrelated incident.
While awaiting trial, Fowler was convicted of sodomizing a jail inmate and sentenced to three terms of 25 years to life in prison.