Sunday Tribune

‘Arsonist’ charged over US fire deaths

Move signals tough new standard


PROSECUTOR­S in California are charging a suspected arsonist with the murder of five people who died of heart attacks during a 2003 runaway fire.

The move could signal a tough new standard for arson cases in a region often plagued by fires.

Six men died of a heart attack during the blaze that surged through the San Bernardino Mountains.

Armed with evidence that stress from the runaway fire led to five of the deaths, prosecutor­s took the step last week of charging Rickie Lee Fowler, 28, with five counts of first-degree murder.

Proving the case, however, could be a challenge: all the victims had a history of heart disease, and prosecutor­s might be hard-pressed to get a jury to see murder in the medical mix.

The charges would make the case eligible for the death penalty, but prosecutor­s said they have not decided whether to seek it.

Under California law, any death that occurs during the commission of a felony, including arson, can be charged as first-degree murder, but a conviction will hinge on how much time elapsed between the crime and the death and if any other factors contribute­d.

Prosecutor­s insist they have a strong case and are confident they can link the deaths to the arson.

In addition to the murder counts, Fowler was indicted on one count of aggravated arson and one count of arson of an inhabited structure. He has not appeared in court. Following a phone tip, investigat­ors interviewe­d Fowler several months after the fire, but didn’t have enough evidence to press charges.

They went back to him in 2006 and 2008, when he finally provided additional informatio­n that helped detectives close the case.

Earlier this year, prosecutor­s in neighbouri­ng Riverside County won a death penalty conviction against Raymond Lee Oyler, who set the 2006 Esperanza runaway fire that killed five firefighte­rs.

Oyler is believed to be the first person in the US to be convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in a bushland arson case. – Belfast Telegraph

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