Families react to death penalty in forest fire arson case
“It’s still very hard for me to think about the week that turned my world upside down,” said Ashley Taylor, who was 15 when her father, Robert Taylor, died of a heart attack after evacuating during the fire. “I still feel the pain every day."
Rickie Lee Fowler was sentenced to death Monday for setting the blaze at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains in September 2003.
“Rickie Fowler should be put to death," Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith said inside the San Bernardino courtroom, adding that the evidence of Fowler’s guilt and life of violence were overwhelming.
With his eyes fixed on the judge, Fowler showed no response as the sentence was read in open court. He sat alone in the jury box wearing a forest green jail jumpsuit, clutching a piece of paper.
After the hearings, Fowler’s attorney, Don Jordan, said his client was made a “scapegoat” by the district attorney’s office and law enforcement agencies, which were under immense pressure to solve the arson.
The death sentence will automatically be appealed to the California Supreme Court.
Jordan, in an hour-long statement before the sentencing, said evidence has surfaced indicating that Fowler was at a friend’s house when the Old Fire broke out.Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bullock, who prosecuted the case, said after the sentencing, “The evidence in the case is overwhelming. Thankfully for the victim and the community, there’s finally a conclusion.’’
After the hearing, the son of Robert Taylor said the death sentence offered some justice for his family and the thousands who suffered because of the devastating wildfire. “I’m glad he’s going to death row,’’ said Jesse Taylor. “He’s hurt a lot of people over the years. Not just my father."
The prosecutor 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.
The fire broke out Oct. 25, 2003, at Old Waterman Canyon Road and California State Highway 18. Flames 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 attributed to stress from the fire.
A few months later, on Christmas Day, a huge debris flow caused by 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. Another suspect, 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 comments Fowler made in 2008 in which he acknowledged to investigators that he was attempting to burn down the home of a friend, but denied that he was the one who 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 and tossed it.
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-- Phil Willon in San Bernardino
Photo: Rickie Lee Fowler in court in 2012. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times