When sheriff's deputies started what was later deemed the largest criminal investigation in San Bernardino County history, they held back details about the fire in the San Bernardino Mountains that started on Oct. 25, 2003, said a retired sheriff's sergeant.
Bobby Dean, who testified Thursday in San Bernardino Superior Court, said it is a technique investigators use in cases with very little physical evidence.
Officials hold back information only detectives would know because if that information is revealed during suspect interviews it could be a red flag, said Dean, who was previously in charge of the investigation.
The information authorities didn't release was the exact location of where the Old Fire started, that the suspect vehicle ran a stop sign on the way down the mountain shortly after the fire started and that a flare was used to start the blaze.
Some of those details came out during interviews and conversations with Fowler, Dean testified.
"When you lay it all out, it all comes back to the withheld information," Supervising Deputy District Attorney Robert Bulloch said to Dean. "And that was all corroborated and verified in one shape or form from the defendant."
"That's true," Dean said.
Fowler, 30, of San Bernardino, is accused of starting the 2003 Old Fire that burned more than 91,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures. The fire cost nearly $38 million.
The defendant is charged with five counts of murder and special circumstances, which allow prosecutors to pursue the death penalty if he is convicted. Prosecutors say five residents in burn areas died from heart attacks caused by the stress of evacuation and threats to homes and belongings.
Fowler has pleaded not guilty.
During the investigation, authorities initially hypothesized that Fowler went up the mountain that day to rob his godfather, John Aylward.
"They needed a van to carry any property - drugs, guns, or whatever else was in Mr. Aylward's house that Rickie wanted to take," Dean testified.
At some point, Fowler and the people with him decided not to commit the robbery, he said.
Authorities said they later received information that changed their theory about Fowler's alleged motive.
The defendant had allegedly told his great aunt that he stashed stolen drugs at Aylward's house and he planned to burn the residence down because he thought it might get drug dealers off his back, Dean said.
Testimony will continue Monday morning.
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