A San Bernardino jury has convicted the man long suspected of intentionally sparking the deadly 2003 Old Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. Rickie Lee Fowler was convicted on all seven charges, including five counts of felony murder along with felony arson and aggravated arson charges.
Jurors spent just over four days deliberating Fowler's fate after a month-long trial. Fowler, 30, was also found guilty on special circumstance charges that could bring him the death penalty.
The murder charges are in connection with five stress-related heart attack deaths that occurred during the nine day wildfire. He pleaded not guilty.
All of the victims were male, between the ages of 54 and 93. A San Bernardino County coroner testified he believed the fire triggered the fatal heart attacks.
Defense attorneys pointed out that autopsy results showed none of the men had a buildup of soot or other wildfire-related materials in their lungs at the time of their deaths. All of the men had pre-existing health conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and emphysema.
San Bernardino County prosecutors believe Fowler intentionally set the fire — possibly in retaliation for a drug deal gone bad or over another dispute with an acquaintance.
Fowler’s defense team said the evidence linking him to the fire and the subsequent deaths is flimsy and contradictory, and that investigators failed to pursue other plausible theories about who started the fire.
Outside the courtroom, defense attorney Michael Belter declined to comment on the verdict.
“No, I mean at this point the jury told us what the verdict is, we know we’re going to the penalty phase we’re ready to go,” he said.
Fowler — dressed in navy blue slacks, a grey button-down shirt and shackled at the ankles — displayed little emotion while the verdicts were read.
He admitted to being at the place where the fire started. He's also admitted to having the intention to set the blaze, but said he didn’t actually go through with it. In another interview with investigators and in a conversation with a relative, Fowler said he knew who started the fire, but refused to say who.
Fowler later blamed a friend, who he claimed snatched a lit road flare from his hand and tossed it into some dry brush. The flare triggered the monstrous 90,000-acre wildfire which raced from the edge of San Bernardino to the mountaintop resort town of Lake Arrowhead and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and other structures.
Fowler was charged while he was serving time for an unrelated burglary conviction; he was later convicted of sexually assaulting a fellow prisoner.
The penalty phase of trial, where jurors will decide if Fowler should get the death penalty, could last another couple of weeks. Jurors return for the penalty phase on Aug. 20 and is expected to last about two weeks. The jury is still under orders not to talk about the case, according to the Press-Enterprise's Imran Ghori.
Prosecutors also declined to comment until after the penalty phase of the trial.
This story has been updated.