A judge handed a death sentence Monday to the violent felon convicted of setting the 2003 Old fire that destroyed more than 1,000 homes, charred the northwestern face of the San Bernardino Mountains and killed five people.
His eyes fixed on the judge, Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, didn't show a twitch of emotion as the sentence was announced in a San Bernardino courtroom. Fowler, a methamphetamine user since grammar school, already is serving three life terms for brutally sodomizing a cellmate in county jail.
Judge Michael A. Smith called the evidence against Fowler overwhelming, saying there is "no lingering doubt" that he set the deadly wildfire in a rage over being booted from his godfather's home at the top of Waterman Canyon. Smith told the defendant that, despite his horrendous upbringing by an abusive, drug-addicted mother, his lifelong history of violence and crime entitled him to little mercy.
"Rickie Fowler should be put to death," as a jury had recommended, Smith told the court.
The Old fire broke out Oct. 25, 2003, at Old Waterman Canyon Road and California 18, and raced through the forest and brush, forcing the evacuation of more than 30 communities and 80,000 people. It came as firefighters were battling a blaze in Upland and Rancho Cucamonga. Six men died of heart attacks, although prosecutors said one could not be directly linked to the stress of the fire.
A jury in August found that Fowler deliberately set the blaze by tossing a lighted road flare into the dry brush at the base of the mountains. After convicting him of murder and arson, that same panel in September ordered Fowler's execution.
One of those who died was Robert Taylor, 54, a carpenter and single parent from San Bernardino, who succumbed to a heart attack after fleeing the flames. His children addressed the judge during Monday's hearing.
Ashley Taylor, who was 15 when her father died, said her children will never feel their grandfather's love. Gone forever, she said, is her jokester father, who always found a way to put a smile on her face.
"It's still very hard for me to think about the week that turned my world upside down," she told the judge. "Although the tragic event was more than a decade ago, I still feel the pain every day."
The son of Robert Taylor said after the hearing that the death sentence offered some justice for his family and the thousands who suffered because of the devastating wildfire.
"I'm glad he's going to death row," said Jesse Taylor. "I think he deserved it because he's been hurting a lot of people for years, not just my father. Not just that fire. For years and years and years he's been hurting people."
During the trial, Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bullock portrayed Fowler as a sadistic felon who inflicted "misery and mayhem" on those who crossed his path throughout his life. He raped and brutalized two girlfriends, one of whom was pregnant with his son, and turned a cellmate into his personal "sex slave," according to prosecutors. Fowler once attacked a woman who offered him a place to stay, slashing her and her dog with a butcher knife so he could steal a few hundred dollars, Bullock said.
Fowler's crimes "scream out for the death penalty," Bullock said during the sentencing hearing.
"Rickie started that fire and the jury did the right thing," Bullock said afterward. "Thankfully for the victims and the community, there's finally some closure to this case."
Before sentencing, defense attorney Donald Jordan made an impassioned plea to the judge to set aside the jury's recommendation of death and instead sentence Fowler to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Jordan restated his argument during the trial that the prosecution did not present any direct evidence showing that Fowler had set the blaze or that the deaths were intentional. On Monday, Jordan said he also may have found witnesses who could testify that Fowler was, in fact, watching television at a friend's house when the fire was set — but said they refuse to cooperate.
The judge, however, rejected the last-ditch plea, saying the prosecution provided ample, convincing evidence that Fowler set the fire.
Jordan later said his client was made a "scapegoat" by the district attorney's office and law enforcement agencies, which were under immense pressure to solve the case. Because Fowler was sentenced to death, the case automatically will be appealed to the California Supreme Court.