Deadly Fire in Riverside
Riverside, CA - A serial arsonist started a forest fire that left five firefighters dead as part of a plot to stop his pit bull terrier from being euthanized. Prosecutors in Riverside, 55 miles east of Los Angeles, said Raymond Lee Oyler was a man "bent on destruction" who had started the October 2006 fire out of anger that his dog had been impounded. Oyler, 38, faces five counts of murder and 40 arson-related counts and faces the death penalty if convicted.
Prosecutor Michael Hestrin said Oyler had deliberately set a night-time blaze so that air support would not be available and firefighters "would be on their own." The Esperanza Fire burned over 43,000 acres and took the lives of five brave men. More than 50 houses and buildings were destroyed in the fire. Hestrin added that Oyler was a "a man bent on destruction, a man with the desire to be important and so great (that he would) unleash a disaster of his own making."
The five U.S. Forest Service firefighters killed in the fire -- known as Engine 57 -- were attempting to save people who had not been evacuated when their truck was overrun by flames. Three perished on the spot, and two died later. Hestrin said prosecutors would use statements from Oyler's girlfriend that he confessed to setting fires and wanted to set a hill ablaze as a distraction so he could rescue his quarantined pit bull terrier that was going to be euthanized.
Authorities traced the fire back to Oyler when they caught his car on a surveillance camera several times and retrieved matches from the crime scenes that were identical to those found at his girlfriend's home. In addition, a witness at a gas station near the Esperanza fire identified Oyler as standing in the parking lot admiring the blaze, saying it was "acting exactly as I thought it would." The trial is expected to take a month. If convicted, Oyler could face the death penalty.
Opening statements were heard Thursday. The trial continues next week.
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