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Trial begins for man accused of setting Esperanza fire [UPDATED]

January 22, 2009 |  1:58 pm

Oyler Opening arguments began today in the trial of Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of setting the October 2006 Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters and destroyed 46,000 acres near Banning.

Prosecutors said Oyler was behind a series of fires in the Banning Pass area, fires that grew larger over time. The incendiary devices he allegedly used were all variations on a cigarette tied to a handful of wooden matches, which he would light and then leave. That usually gave him about 10 minutes to get away, said prosecutor Michael Hestrin.

Hestrin said Oyler's DNA was found on one of the cigarettes, and that his car was spotted near the scene of the Esperanza and another 25 fires. Hestrin also said Oyler told his girlfriend that he was setting fires and had vowed to "set the hill on fire."


The prosecutor showed photos of a man hanging out at a Banning gas station as the Esperanza fire was starting to burn. He said a truck driver later identified the man as Oyler.

"He was in the best place to view the fire," Hestrin said. "The driver will testify that the man said, 'The fire is doing exactly what I thought it would do.' ''

Opening statements will continue this afternoon. If convicted, Oyler faces the possibility of a death sentence.

Updated, 3:05 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that the Esperanza fire started in March 2006.

--David Kelly

Photo: Riverside County Sheriff's Department