After barely a day of deliberation, a Riverside County jury on Wednesday returned a verdict of death for Raymond Lee Oyler for starting the 2006 Esperanza fire in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains that killed five firefighters, destroyed 34 homes and charred more than 41,000 acres.
Firefighters and the families of the victims hailed the decision and said it offered a measure of justice for a crime they said had torn a hole in the fabric of their lives.
“For the last 2 1/2 years, life has been unbearable,” said Gloria Ayala, the mother of Daniel Hoover-Najera, one of the firefighters killed in the blaze. “Danny is no longer down the hallway, no longer a conversation away. This loss is almost too much, but now justice will be served.”
She also had a message for Oyler.
“I harbor no anger, only hope that you understand the depth of pain you caused us and your family,” Ayala said, as she stood with the families of other victims outside the courthouse. “More importantly, I forgive you for the act that took my son’s life.”
Judge W. Charles Morgan will sentence Oyler to death or life in prison without parole at a hearing June 5.
Oyler, 38, was convicted March 6 of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device. Prosecutors said the Beaumont mechanic had set fires throughout the San Gorgonio Pass in the summer of 2006 leading up to the Esperanza fire on Oct. 26.
Early that morning, he used a combination of matches and a cigarette to light a fire in a remote area of Cabazon. Gusty Santa Ana winds drove the flames into the San Jacinto Mountains, where they reached speeds of 40 mph and temperatures of 1,500 degrees.
A U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew based in Idyllwild was overrun by flames while trying to save a house. In addition to Hoover-Najera, 20, the victims were Pablo Cerda, 23; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; Jason McKay, 27; and Jess McLean, 27.
The trial lasted more than a month, during which jurors were shown gruesome photos of the dead, some of whom suffered burns to more than 90% of their bodies. But even after seeing and hearing the evidence, and even after convicting Oyler of first-degree murder, the jury was hesitant to sentence him to death.
“I tell you there were more tears today than in any part of the trial,” said the jury foreman, who declined to give his name. “People kept asking, ‘What if? What if?’ But when we looked at those pictures of the firemen again, that convinced us.”
The foreman said hearing witness Maria Loutzenhiser, wife of Mark Loutzenhiser, talk about the ordeal and life after her husband’s death was the most emotional part of the trial.
“Everyone just lost it,” he said, tearing up.
The juror said the panel initially had a hard time determining whether Oyler was guilty of setting the Esperanza fire until they began tying all the smaller blazes together. He said a series of lies told by Oyler about his whereabouts the night of the fire also swayed them.
“When you follow it all to the end, there was no other conclusion,” he said.
Heather Oyler, the convicted murderer’s 21-year-old daughter, had hoped for mercy. Her father, she said, was a “very nice man.”
“I just want you to know my dad is not the monster they have painted him as,” she said, surrounded by distraught family members. “I understand that my dad may have had problems, but he did not intend to kill anyone.”
She vowed to visit him in San Quentin every month and help with his appeal.
Bonnie McKay, mother of Jason McKay, said trial testimony showed that some members of the Oyler family knew he was setting fires.
“If a family member had come forward from the get-go, we wouldn’t be standing here today and they wouldn’t have lost their loved one,” she said.
Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins pronounced Oyler’s “reign of terror” over.
The man who prosecuted the case, Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin, thanked the jury for reliving the horror of the fire.
“The men of Engine 57 truly were the best of us,” he said. “When everyone else was running away from the fire, they were running toward it.”
Oyler’s defense attorneys were not available for comment. During closing arguments in the death penalty phase Tuesday, attorney Thomas Eckhardt admitted that his client was a serial arsonist and a murderer. But killing him, he said, would not bring back the dead, and life in prison without parole was a fitting punishment.
Perhaps the most vehement reaction to the death verdict came from the chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, Jeff Stone, who spoke outside the courthouse alongside the victims’ families.
“It shall in no way compare to the eternal punishment that will be suffered by Raymond Oyler in hell,” he said.