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Death penalty imposed for 2003 Old Fire in San Bernardino County

January 28, 2013 | 12:16 pm

072982.ME.1029.fire4.jp

A methamphetamine addict with a violent history was sentenced to death Monday for setting the 2003 Old fire in San Bernardino County that destroyed 1,000 homes and led to five deaths.

A jury in August convicted Rickie Lee Fowler of murder and arson for the blaze, which prosecutors said he deliberately set by tossing a lighted road flare into brush at the base of the mountains on an October day when Southern California already was overwhelmed by wind-fed wildfires. The same jury recommended in September that Fowler be sent to California’s death row.

Superior Court Judg170240.ME.0127.Fowler.006.IK (1)e Michael A. Smith on Monday agreed, sentencing Fowler to death.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bullock had portrayed Fowler as a sadistic felon who inflicted "misery and mayhem" on those who crossed his path throughout his life. The prosecution said he raped and brutalized two girlfriends, one of whom was pregnant with his son, and sodomized a jail cellmate, turning him into a "sex slave."

Fowler's attorneys said in September that they planned to file a motion for a new trial, arguing that the prosecution did not present any direct evidence showing that Fowler had set the blaze or that the deaths were intentional. All five deaths were due to heart attacks triggered by the stress
of the fire, according to prosecution testimony.

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

Photos: Old Fire burning near Running Springs in 2003; Rickie Lee Fowler in court in January 2012. Credits: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times; Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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