Flanked by television cameramen and reporters on Monday in San Bernardino Superior Court, Tom Wayman became somewhat of an unsuspecting celebrity.

It seemed as though everyone wanted to hear Wayman's story - of how he was forced to vacate his Cedar Glen home near Lake Arrowhead in October 2003, when the most destructive wildfire in San Bernardino County history, the Old Fire, swept into the mountain village, destroying most of the homes in it, including Wayman's.

It has taken nearly a decade for Wayman to rebuild his life and about the same amount of time for the person suspected of igniting the devastating blaze, 30-year-old Rickie Lee Fowler, to be brought to trial.

Opening statements began Monday in Fowler's trial, and Wayman made it a point to be present.

"I wanted to be here to see how it went - to hear the arguments and evidence, to see the defendant's face and maybe get some closure," said Wayman, 54, of Lake Arrowhead, outside the courtroom Monday. "I wanted to be here to see the defendant, to get a look."

Prior to Monday, Wayman's only familiarity with Fowler, who faces the death penalty if convicted of his alleged crimes, was from news accounts.

He said he's trying to remain fair and impartial, but admitted he was having a hard time staving off the anger and disgust roiling inside him.

"I don't know if he's guilty, so I'm trying to reserve judgment," Wayman said.

Fowler is charged with five counts of murder and two counts of arson in connection with the deadly Old Fire, which started on Oct.


Advertisement

25, 2003, in Old Waterman Canyon and burned for more than a week across the San Bernardino Mountains. It destroyed nearly 1,000 homes, was a contributing factor in the deaths of five people, authorities say, and burned 91,281 acres.

While opening statements were under way Monday in Fowler's trial, Old Fire victims who lost friends or loved ones and who will testify against Fowler at trial, reflected on how the blaze changed their lives forever.

"We had never been through anything like that before, and it was terrifying," said Dolores Boron, 58, of Crestline. Her close friend, Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67, was one of five men who died from complications attributed to the fire.

She said she is scheduled to testify Tuesday.

Boron recalls the pandemonium of having to evacuate the mountain via Highway 38.

"Coming down Highway 38, it was nothing but tailights, and when we got down to the bottom we didn't know where to go," Boron said.

She said she and McWilliams were directed to an evacuation center at San Bernardino International Airport, where they were interviewed by CBS News. Three days later, Boron, her husband, Richard, and their daughter were allowed to go up to Crestline to check on their home. When they returned to the evacuation center, McWilliams was gone.

Boron later learned McWilliams, who had been on an oxygen tank due to a pre-existing condition, had been taken to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he had died.

Boron testified before the criminal grand jury that indicted Fowler on Nov. 30, 2009. She said Monday she was feeling antsy about the trial.

"I'm just nervous to go and testify, because he'll (Fowler) be there this time," Boron said.

Reach Joe via email, call him at 909-386-3874, or find him on Twitter @SBCountyNow.