Man gets death sentence in 2003 forest fire that killed 5 people
A San Bernardino County jury on Friday recommended a death sentence for the violent methamphetamine addict convicted of setting the catastrophic 2003 Old Fire that destroyed 1,000 homes, blackened the San Bernardino Mountains and led to five deaths.
The jury in August found that Rickie Lee Fowler deliberately set the blaze by tossing a lighted road flare into brush at the base of the mountains on a windy October day when Southern California was overwhelmed by wildfires.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bullock portrayed Fowler as an "evil" and sadistic felon, and urged the jury to send him to death row. Fowler, he said, inflicted “misery and mayhem” on those who crossed his path throughout his life — he raped and brutalized two girlfriends and sodomized a jail cellmate, turning him into a "sex slave."
"You’re not going to find a better case than this for the death penalty," Bullock told the jury during closing arguments last week.
The same jury in August convicted Fowler of arson and five counts of murder. Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith has the legal authority to reduce a death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but such an action is rare in California.
Defense attorney Michael Belter acknowledged Fowler’s violent past, but told the jury it was born out of the pain and neglect he suffered while being raised by two meth-addicted parents. He urged the jury to exercise mercy, and sentence Fowler to life imprisonment. Belter also argued that Fowler never intended to kill anyone, emphasizing that all five deaths were due to heart attacks.
"How is it that Rickie Fowler got here?" Belter asked jurors in his closing statement during the penalty phase of the trial. "When you’re 8 years old, you should not be living in filth, or given a line of methamphetamine by your dad."
Bullock said Fowler deliberately set the blaze in Waterman Canyon in a fit of rage against his godfather, who had kicked Fowler out of his house at the top of the canyon.
One of Fowler’s defense attorneys, Don Jordan, unsuccessfully argued that the prosecution had no direct evidence showing that Fowler had set the blaze.
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. It came as firefighters were battling a separate blaze in Upland and Rancho Cucamonga. 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.
Investigators said they questioned Fowler shortly after the fire but did not have enough evidence to arrest him at that time. Another suspect in the fire, Martin Valdez, 24, was fatally shot in Muscoy, near San Bernardino, in 2006. At the time of the fire, witnesses reported seeing Fowler and Valdez in a white van throwing a flaming object into Waterman Canyon.
Much of the prosecution’s case hinged on incriminating comments that Fowler made to investigators in 2008. He acknowledged to the investigators 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.
-- Phil Willon
Photo: Rickie Lee Fowler in court earlier this year. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times