SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – A prosecutor said Monday a man who was angry about being thrown out of a house where his family was staying was guilty of murdering five people who had heart attacks after he deliberately torched a hillside and started a raging wildfire that destroyed hundreds of homes in Southern California.
Supervising Deputy District Attorney Robert Bulloch flashed picture after picture of burning forests and firefighters as he delivered his opening statement at the trial of Rickie Lee Fowler.
"This fire was deliberately set," Bulloch said. "It was set maliciously by this defendant, Rickie Fowler. He did it because he was angry. He did it because he was selfish. He did it because he wanted revenge."
The charges against Fowler signaled a tough new standard for arson cases in a region plagued by wildfires that sometimes claim the lives of firefighters and civilians. Bulloch declined to discuss the reasons for pursuing murder charges against Fowler, except to say the law states that if someone is killed during a felony, a person involved in that crime would be responsible for the death.
Fowler, 30, was serving time for burglary when he was charged with starting the wind-blown Old Fire in 2003 in the foothills above San Bernardino. It was one of many blazes that raged simultaneously throughout Southern California that year.
Fowler has pleaded not guilty to arson and five counts of murder. He could face the death penalty if convicted after the trial that's expected to last a month.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Don Jordan raised questions about whether the Old Fire or another wildfire raging in the mountainous area east of Los Angeles caused the stress that led to the heart attacks.
He also said there were a number of discrepancies in testimony by witnesses such as the color and description of the van seen in the area where the fire began. Memories have faded over the course of the years-long probe, Jordan added.
The prosecutor told jurors that Fowler became upset after a man who had given shelter to his family kicked Fowler out of the residence amid thefts and mistreatment. Fowler then started the fire that scorched 91,000 acres and decimated neighborhoods while burning for nine days, Bulloch said.
Five men died of heart attacks after their homes burned to the ground or as they rushed to evacuate, he said. A total of about 1,000 buildings were destroyed.
Fowler became a suspect when witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. Investigators acting on a phone tip interviewed Fowler several months later but didn't have enough evidence to file charges until six years after the fire.
On Monday, Bulloch told jurors about the five men who died after the blaze began. One of them, Robert Taylor, was 54 when he lost his house and home-based consulting business in the flames. Under a tremendous amount of stress, he lost sleep and suffered headaches. A week later, he had a heart attack, Bulloch said.
Thomas Wayman, 54, listened to opening statements and hopes by attending the trial he might feel some sense of closure after losing his house and nearly all of his belongings in the fire. Nine years later, he is still trying to rebuild his life.
"It is frightening just to realize human nature is such that people do the things they do," Wayman said.
In 2008, Fowler gave authorities a note acknowledging he was there when the Old Fire began and had intended to light it but "got beaten to the punch" by a friend, Bulloch said.
Fowler denied in jailhouse interviews in 2009 that he was the man who got out of the van and tossed a lit road flare into the brush. He also said he was badgered into making a confession.
"The community wants to crucify someone. They're angry. I understand," he told the San Bernardino Sun. "I guess they're looking for justice, but get the right person. I had nothing to do with it. I really didn't."
In his opening statement, Jordan said his client never told investigators he was the one who ignited the wildfire.
"Mr. Fowler never, ever, ever, ever even hinted at, never ever said he lit the fire," the attorney told jurors.
The suspected driver of the van, Martin Valdez Jr., was later shot and killed in an unrelated incident in the town of Muscoy.
While in prison awaiting trial, Fowler was convicted of sodomizing a jail inmate and sentenced to three, 25-years-to-life prison terms.
On Monday, Fowler refused to attend the trial and was brought into the courtroom in shackles under a judge's order before the jury was seated. Defense attorney Michael Belter criticized Judge Michael A. Smith for allowing the media to take photographs of Fowler in shackles, arguing it would taint the jury.
"If those are the photographs that are in the newspapers tomorrow, we're going to make a motion for a mistrial," Belter said.
Smith said he could not order the press to withhold something it already had, but he encouraged the media to use pictures of Fowler taken after the shackles were removed.