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Murder case in San Bernardino County's Old fire heads to jury

August 9, 2012 |  6:55 am

Rickie Lee Fowler

The murder case against Rickie Lee Fowler, the man accused of deliberately setting a fire in 2003 that torched 91,000 acres in San Bernardino County, was in the hands of a jury on Thursday.

Nine years after the fire destroyed about 1,000 homes and led to the deaths of at least five people, jurors are deciding whether Fowler purposefully tossed a road flare into the brush at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains. Fowler faces a possible death sentence if convicted of any of the five counts of murder he faces.

Prosecutors said they had ample evidence to convict Fowler, 30, of setting the blaze, known as the Old fire. They told jurors that Fowler, a career criminal, ignited the fire in an act of revenge against a man who had kicked him out of his house.

Defense attorney Don Jordan said much of the prosecution's case hinged on "false confessions" made by Fowler to authorities during interrogations. "He never, ever said he lit the fire. He said he was present when other people lit the fire," Jordan said. "The sheriffs had no other leads so they focused with tunnel vision on him."

The case reached the jury at around 4 p.m Wednesday, Jordan said.

All of the victims in the Old fire died of health-related ailments during the blaze.

Charles H. Cunningham, 93, died of a heart attack as he watched flames engulf his one-story house in San Bernardino. James McDermith, 70, of Highland, died trying to retrieve his trailer during the fire.

Just weeks after the fire, on Christmas Day 2003, a huge mudslide caused by intense rain in areas denuded by the fire swept through a church camp in Waterman Canyon, killing 14 people. Fowler was not charged in connection with those deaths.

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-- David Zahniser

Photo: A jury is deliberating the murder charges against Rickie Lee Fowler, photographed during a court hearing earlier this year. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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