SAN BERNARDINO - Opening statements began on Monday in the long-awaited trial for Rickie Lee Fowler, suspected arsonist in the Old Fire that burned through mountain and foothill communities in October 2003.
The blaze blackened more than 91,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,000 structures and cost nearly $38 million, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Robert Bulloch said inside the San Bernardino Superior Courthouse. Prosecutors attribute five deaths to the wildfire.
"The community is glad it is finally getting resolved," Bulloch said, referring to the years
Fowler, 30, of San Bernardino, has been charged with four counts of murder and special circumstances, which allow prosecutors to pursue the death penalty if he is convicted. The murder charges are for residents in burn areas who died from heart attacks that prosecutors say were caused by the stress of evacuation and threats to homes and belongings.
The victims were Charles Cunningham, James McDermith, Chad Williams, Ralph McWilliams and Robert Taylor.
Bulloch gave a brief summation of each man, but promised to go into more detail during the witness testimony.
Bulloch delivered his opening statement to the jury first, showing them about a dozen intense photographs of the raging wildfire and telling them about its toll on the national forest, personal property and mountain communities.
"This fire didn't have to happen," Bulloch said.
The prosecution said Fowler deliberately set the fire at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 25, 2003, and he did it because he was angry, selfish, and he wanted revenge.
"Mr. Fowler was angry at that time," Bulloch said. "He sought attention, he wanted control over his life and over other people ... He wanted to burn somebody
The fire raged with such intensity, it created its own weather, Bulloch said.
Jurors also heard details about Fowler's response to investigators following his arrest. He toyed with them, and shared only tidbits of information, Bulloch said.
The Old Fire investigation - deemed the largest criminal investigation in San Bernardino County history - went on for years because of Fowler's withholding of information, the prosecution said.
Bulloch showed the jury a statement that Fowler issued in February 2008. Fowler said he intended to light the fire, but a friend who was with him beat him to it.
Essentially, Bulloch said, the defendant confessed to the fire.
Fowler, who is being represented by lawyers Don Jordan and Michael Belter, has pleaded not guilty to the charges in the Old Fire case.
In April, Fowler was sentenced to three life sentences in his jailhouse sodomy case in West Valley Superior Court in Rancho Cucamonga. Judge Stephan G. Saleson denied defense attempts to get a new trial and sentenced Fowler to three terms of 25 years to life in state prison, according to court records.
Fowler was found guilty in February of three felony counts of sodomy by force on another inmate at West Valley Detention Center. The incidents occurred in August 2010.
During his opening statements, Jordan told the jury he was not going to minimize the destruction, or the lives lost, as a result of the fire.
But he is going to challenge the prosecution's argument, he said.
"I don't think his representation (of what happened) was accurate," Jordan said of Bulloch.
The defense focused on conflicting information concerning the fire - like the color of the suspect vehicle and the description of the arsonist.
"Please excuse me for going into these minute details, but ladies and gentlemen, that's what this case is about," he said.
Jordan also criticized the eyewitness accounts, saying they changed their minds throughout the investigation.
"I'm not saying the witnesses are falsifying anything, it's just human nature (to forget)," he said. "They wanted to help sheriff's (investigators). They wanted to help solve the crime ... but memory fades."
Between 2003 and 2008, Fowler was interrogated nine times, Jordan said. And while the defendant said he was present, he never said he lit the fire.
The prosecution expects the trial to last four to five weeks.