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Jury weighs death penalty in San Bernardino murder-arson case

Jury weighs death penalty in murder-arson case
The San Bernardino man convicted of setting the 2003 Old fire that destroyed 1,000 homes and led to five deaths is an evil sadistic felon who raped, robbed and tortured people throughout his life, and deserves a death sentence, a San Bernardino County prosecutor told jurors Thursday.

Dep. Dist. Atty. Robert Bullock told jurors that Rickie Lee Fowler’s drug addiction and horrific childhood did not excuse the “misery and mayhem” Fowler has caused throughout his life.

Defense attorney Michael Belter acknowledged the trail of human devastation left in Fowler’s wake, but urged jurors to consider the nightmare of a childhood that twisted Fowler's psyche. “How is it that Rickie Fowler got here," Belter told jurors. “When you’re 8 years old you should not be living in filth, or given a line of methamphetamine by your dad."

Jury deliberations are expected to begin Thursday afternoon. The same panel convicted Fowler of arson and five counts of first-degree murder in August.

In the years before setting the deadly blaze, Bullock told jurors, Fowler raped and brutalized two previous girlfriends, one of whom was pregnant with his son, and turned a jail cellmate into his personal “sex slave.”

When a friend’s mother took him into her home, he stabbed her with a butcher knife and stole her small kitty of cash, then slashed her dog, he said.

“You are not going to find a better case than this for the death penalty," the prosecutor told jurors during his closing statement.

Belter urged the panel to avoid the temptation to extract vengeance by recommending the death penalty. Fowler will be punished no matter what they decide, he said, urging them to give Fowler a sentence of life without parole. Fowler would spend the rest of his days in a prison cell as big as a “king-size mattress," Belter told the panel.

The Old fire broke out Oct. 25, 2003, at Old Waterman Canyon Road and California 18, and raced through the forest and brush, forcing the evacuation of more than 30 communities and 80,000 people. Six men died of heart attacks, although prosecutors said one could not be directly linked to the stress of the fire.

A few months later, on Christmas Day, 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 was not charged in that incident.

Bullock said Fowler deliberately set the blaze by tossing a lighted road flare into the parched brush at the base of the mountains. He did so in a fit of rage for being kicked out of the house by his godfather, who lived at the top of Waterman Canyon, where the blaze was set, the prosecutor said.

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, near San Bernardino, in 2006.

At the time of the fire, witnesses reported seeing the suspects in a white van throwing a flaming object into the canyon.

Much of the prosecution's case hinged on incriminating comments Fowler made to investigators in 2008, in which he acknowledged that he was attempting to burn down the home of a friend, but said he was not the one who actually set the blaze. Fowler told investigators that he went to the back of the van and took out a flare, but that Valdez grabbed the flare from him and tossed it.

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-- Phil Willon

Photo: Rickie Lee Fowler, right, talks with his attorney, Michael Belter, during his trial in July. Credit: LaFonzo Carter / San Bernardino Sun
 
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