Arsonist convicted on five counts of murder in 2003 Old Fire
Habitual criminal Rickie Lee Fowler was convicted Wednesday on five counts of murder and two counts of arson in the 2003 arson fire that destroyed 1,000 homes, led to five deaths and blackened the northwest face of the San Bernardino Mountains, prosecutors said.
Fowler, high on methamphetamine at the time, set the blaze by tossing a lighted road flare into the parched brush at the base of the mountains, authorities said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bulloch, in his closing statement Monday, called Fowler "evil." He said Fowler intentionally set what is known as the Old Fire in a fit of rage against a man who kicked Fowler out of his house.
Lead defense attorney Don Jordan argued the prosecution had no direct showing Fowler set the blaze.
The 91,000-acre wildfire, which broke out Oct. 25, 2003, at Old Waterman Canyon Road and California 18, raced through the forest and brush, forcing the evacuation of more than 30 communities and 80,000 people. Six men died of heart attacks, and investigators said five of those deaths were directly related to the stress of the fire.
On Christmas Day of that year, a huge mudslide caused by intense rain on the denuded slopes of the burn area swept through a church camp in Waterman Canyon, killing 14 people. Fowler faced no charges in that incident.
Investigators said they questioned Fowler shortly after the fire but did not have enough evidence to arrest him. Another suspect, Martin Valdez, 24, was fatally shot in Muscoy in 2006. At the time of the fire, witnesses reported seeing the suspected arsonists throwing a flaming object into the canyon while driving a white van.
Much of the prosecution's case hinged on incriminating comments Fowler made to investigators in 2008: he said he was trying to burn down his friend's house. Fowler told them he went to the back of the van and took out a flare, but that Valdez grabbed the flare from his hand and tossed it.
Fire victims included Charles H. Cunningham, 93, who died of a heart attack as he watched flames engulf his one-story house in San Bernardino, and James McDermith, 70, of Highland, who died trying to retrieve his trailer during the fire. The circumstances of the deaths of Chad Leo Williams, 70; Robert Norman Taylor, 54; and Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67, were not outlined in the indictment.
-- Phil Willon in San Bernardino and Rebecca Trounson in Los Angeles
Photo: Rickie Lee Fowler appears in court during his trial in San Bernardino County. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times