Raymond Lee Oyler, the Beaumont mechanic convicted of setting the 2006 Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters, was sentenced to death Friday by a judge who said the serial arsonist had set out to "create havoc."
"He became more and more proficient," said Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan. "He knew young men and women would put their lives on the line to protect people and property, yet he continued anyway."
Oyler, 38, sat blank-faced beside his lawyer while members of his family wept in the rows behind him.
Before the sentencing, family members of the dead firefighters were allowed to address him. Gloria Ayala, mother of Daniel Hoover-Najera, went first.
"I will never see the children he would have had. I will never hear 'I love you, Mom' in his voice ever again. The pain of never seeing my son again is unbearable," she said as she struggled to retain her composure. "Not only have you destroyed my family, but you destroyed your own family."
Ayala said her son's room remains the way it was before he died near Twin Pines in the San Jacinto Mountains. Sometimes, she said, she sleeps in his bed.
Cecilia McLean, whose son Jess McLean died in the blaze, told Oyler she can't sleep, can't concentrate on daily tasks and volunteers to work overtime just to be away from home and the memories of her son.
"I turn down invitations to go places with family and friends because I never know when something will trigger a memory of Jess," she said. "I'm a mother and my job is to protect my children. I couldn't protect Jess and I'll never forgive myself. We have had to hear and see images that will stay with us forever. Not once have I seen any remorse from Raymond Oyler."
Her other son, Josh McLean, was more direct.
"He stole something from us that he cannot repay," he told the judge in the silent courtroom. "I hope, sir, that you sentence him to die for what he did to my brother because that is justice. There is nothing fair you can do to make this right, but you can give us a little closure."
Minutes later, the judge granted his wish.
Turning to Oyler, he said: "You shall suffer the death penalty, with said penalty to be inflicted within the walls of San Quentin."
A minute or so later, Oyler smiled and laughed with his attorney, seemingly unmoved by what had just happened.
His relatives quietly cried as the packed courtroom slowly emptied.
Outside the courthouse, his daughter Heather Oyler, 22, said that her father felt remorse and his laughing was mere comic relief.
"It has been very emotional," she said. "It touched me to hear that [the firefighters' families] think about us. We feel just as bad for them as they do for us. If Ray could talk to them, I think he would tell them he didn't do it. He feels bad for them."
She said she still believes her father is innocent.
Oyler was convicted March 6 of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device. A jury called for the death penalty.
Prosecutors say he set a string of fires, as many as 25, throughout the San Gorgonio Pass in summer 2006. The fires, sometimes set day after day, steadily grew larger and more difficult to put out.
About 1 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2006, with Santa Ana winds gusting hard, Oyler used a combination of matches and cigarettes to start a fire in Cabazon at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. The fire swiftly swept up the hillsides, reaching speeds of 40 mph and temperatures of 1,500 degrees.
The firefighters, part of a U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew, were trying to save a house in a canyon when they were overwhelmed by a wall of flames.
The dead were Hoover-Najera, 20; McLean, 27; Pablo Cerda, 23; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; and Jason McKay, 27.
Mark McDonald, one of Oyler's lawyers, said his client didn't get a fair trial because all of the arson cases were lumped together, not tried separately.
"Esperanza would have become a separate fire and there would not have been enough evidence to convict Oyler," he said. "You are not supposed to convict people on related charges but on the actual charge."
But Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin said it was critical to the case to show that Oyler was a serial arsonist and that Esperanza was just one of many fires he set.
"If Esperanza had been his first fire, I'm not sure this would have been a death penalty case. You could say he didn't know what would happen. But he knew what would happen here," he said. "He didn't care about what he did. It's amazing more people weren't killed."
After leaving the courtroom, Ayala was asked if she would attend Oyler's execution.
"I will probably be the farthest place from it," she said.
In fact, she said she forgives Oyler for killing her son.
"Ultimately, he has one judge and that is God."