On Twitter: Reporter Lori Fowler is at the trial @IEcourtsNow

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 following the devastating fire.

Rickie Lee Fowler, in court for a jury trial in the 2003 Old Fire and opening statements from attorneys Monday at the San Bernardino Superior Court House,
Rickie Lee Fowler, in court for a jury trial in the 2003 Old Fire and opening statements from attorneys Monday at the San Bernardino Superior Court House, in San Bernardino. (Lafonzo Carter/Staff Photographer)

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 out."

The fire raged with such intensity, it created its own weather, Bulloch said.

Rickie Lee Fowler, in court for a jury trial in the 2003 Old Fire and opening statements from attorneys Monday at the San Bernardino Superior Court House,
Rickie Lee Fowler, in court for a jury trial in the 2003 Old Fire and opening statements from attorneys Monday at the San Bernardino Superior Court House, in San Bernardino. (Lafonzo Carter/Staff Photographer)

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.

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
  • "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.

    Reach Lori via email or call her at 909-483-9378, or find her on Twitter @IEcourtsNow