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SAN BERNARDINO - Convicted Old Fire arsonist Rickie Lee Fowler was sentenced to death Monday, bringing an end to a high profile case that spanned nearly a decade.

San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith upheld the earlier recommendation that Fowler receive the death penalty for his role in the 2003 blaze that caused the death of five people.

In September, a jury panel recommended that Fowler, 31, of San Bernardino should die by lethal injection.

"The weight of evidence does support the jury's verdict," Smith said.

Convicted Old Fire arsonist Rickie Lee Fowler, left, is escorted by San Bernardino County Sheriff Deputy Serrano after being sentenced to death during a
Convicted Old Fire arsonist Rickie Lee Fowler, left, is escorted by San Bernardino County Sheriff Deputy Serrano after being sentenced to death during a hearing Monday in San Bernardino Superior Court. Fowler has been convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson in connection with starting the 2003 wildfire. (LaFonzo Carter/Staff Photographer)
"Death is the appropriate verdict."

The same jury convicted him of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson in connection with igniting the wildfire.

The blaze, which started on Oct. 25, 2003, near Waterman Canyon, burned more than 90,000 acres in the San Bernardino Mountains, destroyed more than 1,000 structures and cost nearly $38 million.

Five residents in burn areas died from heart attacks caused by the stress of evacuation and threats to homes and belongings, officials said. The five men were: Charles Cunningham, James McDermith, Chad Williams, Robert Taylor and Ralph McWilliams.

Before his client was sentenced Monday, defense attorney Don Jordan pleaded with the judge to modify the jury's verdict and instead sentence Fowler to life without the possibility of parole.

Jordan argued - for the last time - that there was lingering doubt in the case and that Fowler did not know when or where the blaze erupted.

He pointed out that the five victims died from heart attacks and complained about how the prosecution handled the case.

"For all these reasons, please don't impose the death penalty on this poor creature before you," Jordan said.

The veteran lawyer said the loss was the biggest failure of his 50-year law career.

Previous coverage

  • PHOTOS: Gallery from guilty verdict, Aug. 15
  • San Bernardino man, 30, guilty of murder, arson in 2003 Old Fire
  • Jurors inquire about 'intent vs. recklessness' during Old Fire deliberations
  • Update: Old Fire suspect's fate in hand of jury
  • Old Fire suspect opts not to testify, jury to receive case on Wednesday
  • Prosecution focuses on information withheld in Old Fire investigation
  • Former detective used lying techniques in hopes of garnering confession from Old Fire suspect
  • 2004 Fowler interview with law enforcement wraps Tuesday testimony
  • Audio interviews with suspect played again in 2003 Old Fire trial
  • Law professor testifies at Old Fire trial about false confessions
  • After failing polygraph, Fowler admits being present at start of 2003 Old Fire
  • Suspected Old Fire arsonist denies involvement during polygraph test
  • Detective testifies about efforts to find those involved in Old Fire ignition
  • Prosecution in Old Fire trial rests
  • Recorded conversations with suspected Old Fire arsonist shed light on his involvement
  • Coroner: Stress from fire, not pre-existing medical conditions, caused deaths of Old Fire victims
  • Witness testifies Fowler was using drugs and was very angry
  • Family friend testifies on arson suspect's words, behavior at the time of the Old Fire trial
  • Fowler trial testimony focuses on victims
  • Prosecution opens its case against alleged Old Fire arsonist
  • Old Fire victims reflect as trial commences
  • 2003 Old Fire suspect faces death penalty
  • Only Fowler facing trial
  • Details emerge on six victims of deadly 2003 Old Fire
  • Fowler implicates self
  • From jail, suspect denies role in Old Fire
  • The 2003 Old Fire: pain, loss and, finally, some closure six years later
  • Murder, arson charges filed against Old Fire suspect
  • After the hearing, Jordan called Smith's ruling "predictable."

    Rickie Lee Fowler is an "innocent man that will die for a crime he didn't do so a community can feel better about it," Jordan said.

    San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Robert Bulloch spent only a few minutes arguing his side of the case to the judge.

    He said the evidence in the case was straightforward and that Fowler knew what kind of destruction would come from starting a fire in the area.

    "The behavior of this particular defendant screams out death penalty," he said.

    Outside the courtroom, Bulloch talked about closure.

    "I'm glad that the families and the community can finally get some sense of justice out of this," he said. "It's a long time coming."

    lori.fowler@inlandnewspapers.com

    909-483-9378, @IEcourtsnow