Old Fire footprint
In 2003, the Old Fire ravaged the San Bernardino Mountains, eventually merging with the Grand Prix Fire. For context, the footprint of the recent High Park Fire -- which consumed thousands of acres in Colorado earlier this year -- has been overlayed in blue below.


Sources: Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination Group, Esri

Timeline

Oct. 25, 2003: The Old Fire ignites near Old Waterman Canyon Road above San Bernardino. It burns for nine days, blackening more than 91,000 acres, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and causing $170 million in property losses, according to the District Attorney's Office. Five residents in burn areas die from heart attacks that prosecutors say were brought on by the stress of evacuation and threats to homes and belongings. More than 102,000 people were evacuated from their homes during the Old Fire. Charles Cunningham, James McDermith, Chad Williams, Ralph McWilliams and Robert Taylor died.

June 2009: Authorities identify two suspects in the fire. Fowler is one of them. It is learned that he was convicted in San Bernardino County Superior Court in November 2003 of burglary and sentenced to nine years in prison, court records show. He was serving out his sentence at Salinas Valley State Prison. Another source identified Martin Valdez Jr. as the suspected driver of the white Chevrolet Astro van that was seen speeding away from the scene of the fire on Old Waterman Canyon Road. A composite sketch of the suspect is circulated by the Sheriff's Department bears his likeness. But Valdez, 24, of Muscoy, was shot and killed on a Muscoy street in February 2006.

October 2009: Six years after the fire, Fowler is indicted by a Grand Jury. He faces five counts of murder and special circumstances, which allow for prosecutors to pursue the death penalty if he is convicted.

January 2012: Fowler withdraws an offer to accept a plea bargain.

February 2012: Fowler is 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. Jurors also found "true" each of Fowler's two prior strikes, thus allowing each count to result in a 25-year-to-life prison sentence, according to prosecutors. The cell mate reported the incidents to sheriff's deputies at the jail, according to the District Attorney's Office. Charges were filed in September 2010.

May 2012: Fowler requests a Superior Court judge order jailers to serve him kosher meals. Fowler wants to become Jewish and was in the process of becoming Jewish, according to his lawyers. But prosecutors doubt his sincerity.

April 2012: Fowler is sentenced to three life sentences in the jailhouse sodomy case.

July 9: Testimony begins in Fowler's arson and murder trial.

Aug. 15: Rickie Lee Fowler is convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson. Jurors also found the two special circumstances to be "true."


Front page gallery: A look back at The Sun's front pages during the Old Fire

Photo galleries: A collection of images taken during the Old Fire | Images from the announcement of verdicts in Fowler's trial

On Twitter: Reporter Lori Fowler @IEcourtsNow and photographer Rick Sforza @RickSforza tweeted live from the courtroom.


SAN BERNARDINO --

A jury on Wednesday found a 30-year-old man guilty on five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson in the 2003 Old Fire.

Jurors also found true two special circumstances -- multiple murders in the same case and murder during the commission of the crime of arson.

Those circumstances make Rickie Lee Fowler of San Bernardino eligible for the death penalty, which prosecutors plan to seek in the penalty phase of the trial that begins Monday.

Fowler sat silently throughout the hearing in San Bernardino Superior Court with little expression upon hearing the verdict.

After deliberating for four days, the jury announced the verdicts inside Judge Michael Smith's courtroom -- where they listened to testimony since the trial began July 9.

Attorneys on both sides declined to comment, since the trial is not yet over.

Reached by telephone after Wednesday's verdicts, Lake Arrowhead resident Tom Wayman, who lost his Cedar Glen home in the fire, was surprised the murder charges stuck.


"From what I knew of the case, as it was unfolding, it really ought not to have come as a surprise to anybody. There should have been no question in regards to this person's guilt. My only disappointment is that it's taken 10 years to get it done."

JOE ARNETT, 41, San Bernardino, whose newly purchased home in the foothills of San Bernardino, off Del Rosa Avenue was destroyed the first day of the fire


"He was already doing time. Wednesday he just sealed his fate. It's not like we're getting him off the streets."

GILBERT FLORES, Cedarpines Park, who was evacuated at the beginning of the Old Fire and came home two weeks later to a huge expanse of black char as the fire had destroyed a dozen homes on one street


"I never thought much about Fowler, the guy who started it. I guess he got what he deserved."

JOHN WEHNER, Cedarpines Park, who also was evacuated at the beginning of the Old Fire and came home to a huge expanse of devastation, but didn't rebuild on his property until two years ago.


"I think the jury's verdict for Fowler was justified. Life imprisonment will give him time to think about what he did. He's going to have to live with that -- those five people who died. The people who died of heart attacks -- all of them died because of what he did."


CRAIG LEACH, 23-year postal employee and lead supervisor at the Lake Arrowhead Post Office who brought mountain mail to the former Norton Air Force Base, where mountain residents picked it up at a hangar


"I was one of those people who had to pick up their mail in San Bernardino. People on the mountain died and now that the verdict is in, he'll never start another fire. Five people died because of him. He'll never kill another person. He should stay in jail."

BETH COOPER, Lake Arrowhead


Compiled by Staff Writer Michel Nolan

Related stories

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  • 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
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  • "The people who died were already sick, and the D.A. wasn't sure they could get a conviction. I'm kind of surprised they did," said Wayman, 54.

    Fowler was convicted of igniting the Old Fire that burned more than 91,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures after starting near Waterman Canyon, in the foothills above San Bernardino. The fire, which began Oct. 25, 2003, cost nearly $38million.

    Prosecutors said five residents in burn areas died from heart attacks caused by the stress of evacuation and threats to homes and belongings. The five men were: Charles Cunningham, James McDermith, Chad Williams, Robert Taylor and Ralph McWilliams.

    The trauma the Old Fire inflicted on Wayman's life and a longing for closure compelled Wayman to attend the first few days of the trial.

    "It affected me so deeply that I wanted to at least observe the process intended to serve justice, just to see what would happen and to see the accused, Rickie Fowler. I wanted to look him in the eye," Wayman said.

    The lengthy trial revealed a series of stories and motives Fowler gave authorities throughout the investigation.

    While he maintained his innocence, Fowler did admit to being present when the fire was started and having the intentions of lighting the deadly blaze.

    But, Fowler said, a friend grabbed a road flare from his hand, lit it and threw it into the mountainside brush before he could.

    Throughout the trial, the prosecution said Fowler was manipulative and toyed with authorities, withheld information and lied about details.

    Defense lawyers said Fowler's admission was merely a way to garner attention for a high-profile case.

    "Mr. Fowler wanted to be charged with this for some bizarre reason," defense attorney Donald Jordan said during opening arguments.

    "(He) behaves differently than anyone I've ever run across."

    Attorneys on both sides will spend the next few days gathering witnesses and preparing for the second phase, scheduled to start Monday.

    After the jury was dismissed, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Robert Bulloch told the judge that some witnesses called for the guilt phase are expected to return for the penalty phase. 

    And while Jordan took the lead for the defense during the first phase, Michael Belter will be the primary attorney in the second leg of the trial.

    Belter said the penalty phase will have a different focus than before. Both the prosecution and the defense expect to take about four days each to present their side and hope to get the case to the jury around Labor day.

    Wayman couldn't help but still feel a void upon learning the news Wednesday.

    "I've been struggling to put my life back together for nine years. It doesn't make me feel great to hear that he's convicted. It's not like Christmas for me," said Wayman. "But I think there's some kind of satisfaction that comes from knowing the system didn't fail."


    Staff writer Joe Nelson contributed to this report.


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