Arsonist in 2003 Old Fire sentenced to death

Rickie Lee Fowler, convicted of setting the 2003 Old Fire and sentenced to death.
Rickie Lee Fowler, convicted of setting the 2003 Old Fire and sentenced to death. Photo: San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office

A jury in San Bernardino has sentenced defendant Rickie Lee Fowler to death for touching off the deadly 90,000-acre Old Fire in 2003.

Five men died of stress-related heart attacks as the Old Fire ravaged the San Bernardino Mountains. It burned from the northern border of San Bernardino to the mountaintop resort town of Lake Arrowhead. The flames destroyed more than 1,000 homes and other structures over nine days.

During the trial, a medical examiner with the San Bernardino County Coroner's office testified that he believed the Old Fire triggered the five fatal heart attacks. But defense attorneys argued that the victims, whose ages ranged from 54 to 93, had health conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and emphysema that put them at high risk for sudden death.

They also argued that Fowler did not intend to kill anyone.

San Bernardino County prosecutors said Fowler, 31, intentionally set the fire, possibly in retaliation over a dispute with another man. They argued that felony arson made the five deaths murder, which also made Fowler eligible for the death penalty.

Deliberations in the penalty phase of Fowler's trial were slowed by schedule conflicts, reviews of court transcripts and juror questions for the judge and the attorneys.

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