Rickie Lee Fowler says the only thing in his hand when flames from the Old Fire began racing through the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains was a can of spray paint, not the lighted flare that investigators have accused him of hurling into dry brush.

The 28-year-old San Bernardino man admits to being a burglar, a tagger, a former drug user. But he vehemently denies being an arsonist and a murderer, which is what a special grand jury indicted him for last month.

"The community wants to crucify someone. They're angry. I understand," Fowler said. "I guess they're looking for justice, but get the right person. I had nothing to do with it. I really didn't."

The Old Fire started on Oct. 25, 2003, and forced the evacuation of more than 30 communities from Del Rosa to Cedar Glen. Over the course of nine days, the blaze destroyed 1,003 homes and caused six fatal heart attacks from frightened residents fleeing the flames.

In a 20-minute jailhouse interview, his hands shackled by orange handcuffs, Fowler denied being inside the white Chevrolet Astro van that investigators have said stopped near Old Waterman Canyon while a man threw a lighted flare into the brush.

It was repeated interviews with detectives who were "badgering" Fowler while he was serving time in a state prison for an unrelated crime, he said, that prompted him to tell U.S. Forest Service investigators he started the most disastrous blaze in San Bernardino County's history.

"It wasn't even a confession," Fowler said. "I said that so they'd leave me alone and stop bothering me."

A special grand jury indicted Fowler last month on five murder counts, one count of arson of an inhabited structure and one count of aggravated arson. Prosecutor Vic Stull said he has not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

Fowler has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

How he sees it

When the fire started, Fowler said he was tagging with a friend near Highland and Sepulveda avenues in San Bernardino.

"I saw the smoke and then the ashes came," he said.

Fowler said he tried to call his godfather, who lived near where flames were first spotted, because he was concerned about his well-being.

Investigators have said they believe Fowler threw the flare hoping to burn down his godfather's house because the man was withholding methamphetamine or money from him.

Fowler admitted that he was having a disagreement with his godfather, whom he said was opposed to Fowler's chosen criminal lifestyle, but denied wanting to harm him.

He hasn't spoken to his godfather since before the Old Fire.

Fowler declined to discuss Martin Valdez Jr., whom investigators suspect was driving the borrowed white van that was seen fleeing the fire.

Valdez, 24, was interviewed about his alleged involvement in the Old Fire but not arrested or charged. He was shot and killed in Muscoy three years ago.

A police sketch of the driver, assembled through information provided by witnesses, resembles Valdez.

Looking for evidence

The six-year delay in filing charges against Fowler was due to "identification problems," but Stull has declined to elaborate on what that meant.

Investigators have not made public any evidence against Fowler, saying only they believe they can prove he threw the flare.

Fowler said he is unconcerned about evidence because there can be none.

"I'm not losing sleep over this," he said.

He says he passed a lie detector test in December 2003 and would be willing to take another one.

One of the questions investigators asked him, Fowler said, was what he used to start the Old Fire. He says he had to guess, answering firecrackers or matches.

"I decided to run the streets. They were my choices," he said. "I chose to live that way. But I never lit no fires."

Fowler became a suspect about three months after the Old Fire when an anonymous tipster called in his name to San Bernardino County sheriff's detectives.

But in early 2004, while the arson investigation was still new, Fowler was sentenced to prison for two burglary charges, one of which involved robbing a 67-year-old woman of $720 cash, cutting her hand with a meat cleaver and stabbing her dog. 

He was sentenced to 15 years, serving time at both Lancaster and Salinas state prisons before being transferred to West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.

Fowler pointed out that he has always pleaded guilty to charges and believes in accepting responsibility for his actions.

"When I'm wrong, I'm wrong. When I've committed a crime, I've admitted to it," he said, adding that he is not guilty of arson and that is why he will fight the most recent charges.

Since landing behind bars, Fowler said he has participated in several self-help groups and taken college classes ranging from sociology to psychology.

"I'm trying to learn why I am the way I am," he said. "I want to better myself."

Fowler is due back in court Monday.

stacia.glenn@inlandnewspapers.com, (909) 386-3887