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Verdict reached in Esperanza fire that killed 5 firefighters

March 6, 2009 | 12:44 pm

Raymond Lee Oyler, looks on during his preliminary hearing, accused of starting a raging California wildfire that killed five firefighters. The jury has reached a verdict in the trial of Raymond Lee Oyler, the Beaumont mechanic who authorities claim set numerous fires, including the 2006 Esperanza blaze that killed five firefighters.

The verdict is expected to be read around 1:30 p.m.

The Esperanza fire erupted in the early morning hours of Oct. 26 at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains in Cabazon. Santa Ana winds pushed the flames up the mountain, where they reached speeds of 40 mph and temperatures of 1,500 degrees. A crew of U.S. Forest Service firefighters was trapped in a steep canyon while trying to save a house. Flames rolled over them, killing three instantly and two shortly after.

Oyler was arrested a few days later and charged with setting the fire and at least 23 others in the San Gorgonio Pass area. Inside his car, authorities found a wig, latex gloves, cigarettes, black spray paint and a partly burned slingshot that prosecutor Michael Hestrin said was used to launch incendiary devices into the brush. His DNA was found on two cigarette butts used in other nearby wildfires.

During the trial, a truck driver said he spoke with Oyler at a gas station shortly after the fire started. As they watched the flames run up the mountain, he said, Oyler told him that the fire "is happening just the way I thought it would."

Oyler's girlfriend told police that he had bragged about setting fires and had complained that they weren't big enough. She threatened to leave him if he didn't stop, so he quit for six months, Hestrin said.

The families of the victims, along with firefighters, packed the courtroom. Many quietly wept during some of the more graphic testimony.

-- David Kelly

Raymond Lee Oyler, looks on during his preliminary hearing, accused of starting a raging California wildfire that killed five firefighters. Silvia Flores / AP Photo

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