Jury in Old Fire arson and murder trial deliberates for a second day — death penalty possible

Wildfires Arson Murder

Kevork Djansezian/AP

This Oct. 30, 2003 file photo shows a view from a burned out home showing a pine tree forest and homes which were consumed by the Old Fire as it roared through the community of Cedar Glen in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

Jurors in San Bernardino are deliberating for a second day in the trial of a man accused of deliberately setting the 2003 Old Fire.

Rickie Lee Fowler is charged with arson and murder in connection with five stress-related heart attack deaths that occurred during the fire. Those charges include special circumstance allegations that could bring the 30-year-old San Bernardino man the death penalty if he’s convicted.

San Bernardino County prosecutors say Fowler set the fire in retaliation for a botched drug deal. During the trial, they played for the jury audio recordings of Fowler’s interviews with investigators and of his jailhouse visits with relatives.

In those recordings, Fowler admitted to being at the place where the fire started, but denied starting it with a road flare that he had with him. In another interview with investigators and in a conversation with a relative, Fowler said he knew who started the fire but refused to divulge a name.

Fowler’s defense team said the evidence that links him to the fire or the heart attack deaths is flimsy and contradictory, and that investigators failed to pursue other plausible theories about who started the fire. Fowler has pleaded not guilty.

The Old Fire was one of several giant brush fires that broke out in the fall of 2003. It burned more than 90,000 acres of brush land and forest from the foothills of San Bernardino up to the mountain resort town of Lake Arrowhead.

The biggest of the ’03 fires, the Cedar Fire in San Diego County, burned more than 280,000 acres.

Fowler was charged while he was serving time for an unrelated burglary conviction; he was later convicted of sexually assaulting a fellow prisoner.

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