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Trial begins for man accused of starting 2003's Old fire, killing 5

July 9, 2012 | 10:52 am

Trial started Monday for a man accused of killing five people by starting the massive 2003 Old fire in San Bernardino County that damaged more than 1,000 homes.

Rickie Lee Fowler, 30, could face the death penalty if a jury finds him guilty of setting the wildfire that burned more than 90,000 acres and forced the evacuation of about 80,000 people.

The five murder charges stem from deaths of residents from heart attacks that were the result of fire-related stress, said officials with the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office. Fowler also is charged with two counts of arson, according to court documents.

The fire broke out Oct. 25, 2003, at Old Waterman Canyon Road and California 18 in the San Bernardino Mountains. It quickly raced through the forest and brush, forcing the evacuation of more than 30 communities. A total of six men died of heart attacks, and investigators tied five of those deaths to the stress of the fire.

The five murder victims listed in the district attorney’s charging document are:

Charles Howard Cunningham, 93; James William McDermith, 70; Chad Leo Williams, 70; Robert Norman Taylor, 54; and Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67.

The Riverside Press-Enterprise reported in a tweet that the trial had been delayed because Fowler initially refused to leave his cell before eventually entering the courtroom around 10:15 a.m. Monday.

The paper also said Fowler was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison earlier this year after being convicted of jailhouse sodomy charges for an incident in 2010.

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— Matt Stevens

 

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