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No verdict reached in Esperanza Fire trial

March 2, 2009 5:22:29 AM PST
Jurors completed their second day of deliberations Monday without reaching a verdict in the arson-murder trial of a former Beaumont mechanic accused of setting 23 brush fires in Riverside County in 2006, including a blaze that killed five firefighters. Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder and 40 counts of arson and being in possession of destructive devices. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

The four-man, eight-woman panel weighing Oyler's fate made simple requests of Judge W. Charles Morgan today, such as asking for push-pins to hold up a map, according to his court clerk.

The jurors convened around 9 a.m., broke for lunch and went home at 4:30 p.m., she said. They are scheduled to resume deliberations Tuesday at 9 a.m.

The Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza wildfire scorched more than 41,000 acres near Cabazon, damaged or destroyed 54 homes and other structures and killed the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57.

Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, perished when flames swept over a home they were trying to defend near Twin Pines. Firefighter Pablo Cerda, 24, died at a hospital a few days later.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin said just about all the fires Oyler is accused of setting occurred within a 10-mile radius of the defendant's Beaumont apartment, generally when he couldn't be accounted for.

A trucker identified Oyler as a person with whom he spoke at a Cabazon gas station during the first hour of the Esperanza blaze, which started around 1 a.m. The man testified that as Oyler gazed at the raging inferno, he commented that the fire was behaving "just how I thought it would."

Oyler's cousin, Jill Frame, said he boasted about wanting to set a "mountain on fire" in the days leading up to Esperanza. Items seized from the defendant at the time of his arrest included a slingshot with burn marks in the launch pad and a how-to guide titled "The Anarchist's Cookbook," with references on how to make bombs.

He's accused of masterminding an "arson series" from May 16, 2006, to the day of Esperanza.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald said the charges are unfounded and that prosecutors want to blame his client for fires that someone else started.

McDonald said because DNA extracted from cigarettes used to ignite two half-acre fires near Banning in June 2006 matched his client, Oyler was blamed for the deadly Esperanza blaze as well.

"There was enormous pressure to find somebody (following the Esperanza blaze), and that person was Ray Oyler," the attorney said in his closing argument.

According to McDonald, Oyler was at home with his infant daughter and fiancee on the night the Esperanza fire was lit.

The defendant told a sheriff's investigator in a videotaped interview that he was gambling at a Cabazon casino when the monster wildfire erupted.


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