Rickie Lee Fowler, 28, of San Bernardino has been jailed on an unrelated burglary charge since six weeks after the devastating Old Fire began raging through mountain communities and Lower Waterman Canyon on Oct. 25, 2003.
An 18-member Grand Jury panel considered evidence for two weeks before returning the indictment, charging Fowler with five murder counts, arson of an inhabited structure, aggravated arson and two special circumstances: multiple deaths and arson causing death.
The decision came five days before the statute of limitations for arson would have expired. Investigators said the six-year delay was due to "identification problems" and that new evidence surfaced as recently as three weeks ago.
Deputy District Attorney Victor Stull, who was given the case 10 months ago, said Fowler could face the death penalty but said that has yet to be discussed. Fowler is expected to be moved from Lancaster State Prison to be arraigned within two weeks.
"Although justice was delayed, I will tell you justice will be done in this case," District Attorney Michael A. Ramos said at a news conference, flanked by nine fire and county officials.
Indirectly killed by the inferno - most by stress-induced heart attacks - were Charles Cunningham, James McDermith, Chad Williams, Robert Taylor and Ralph McWilliams. A sixth man also died during the fire, but charges were not filed on his behalf because his wife said he had successfully evacuated during other wildfires.
Fowler has been a suspect since investigators learned his name from an anonymous tip three months after the blaze burned 91,281 acres of brush and timber and destroyed 983 homes.
The Old Fire, believed to be San Bernardino County's most devastating wildfire, caused $170 million in damage and forced the evacuation of more than 30 communities.
"Arson is hard to prove, and it's even harder to catch the bad guys," said CalFire spokesman Bill Peters. "But they did it. They caught the bad guy."
Mountain residents who have been frustrated with the District Attorney's Office for not charging Fowler earlier breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday.
"Now people have an opportunity for closure," said Dave Stuart, executive director of Rebuilding Mountain Hearts and Lives. "At least we know who did it so we're not constantly thinking in the back of our heads, `Is he going to strike again?"'
Fowler is accused of hurling a lighted flare onto a hillside near Old Waterman Canyon Road, sparking the blaze, which burned for nine days.
He wanted to burn down the home of a man who was withholding methamphetamine from him, sources close to the investigation have said.
During interviews, Fowler admitted that he and two other men in a borrowed white van ran a stop sign and nearly hit a Redlands couple, a tidbit never released to the public.
The driver, Martin Valdez Jr., was interviewed by investigators as a possible suspect before he was shot to death in an unrelated incident in Muscoy in 2006 at the age of 24. Stull said it is "unlikely" that the third man in the van, whom authorities declined to identify, will be charged in connection with the Old Fire.
A week after the Old Fire started, Fowler was charged with robbing a 67-year-old woman, cutting her hand with a meat cleaver and stabbing her dog, according to court records.
At the time of that arrest, he was facing a six-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to burglarizing a San Bernardino home.
Fowler eventually pleaded guilty to the robbery, and the charge was reduced to burglary. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Third District Supervisor Neil Derry, whose district includes San Bernardino and the mountains, said he is sorry that justice did not come sooner because some who would have liked to see an arrest have died.
"I hope it brings some closure but it will never replace the loss that my constituents have felt and are feeling," Derry said.