A man named Rickie Lee Fowler received a death sentence Monday for five murder convictions and two arson convictions in the October 2003 Old Fire that destroyed a thousand homes and contributed to the deaths of six heart attack victims.
The wind-driven firestorm burned more than 90,000 acres over the course of a week, including Del Rosa in San Bernardino and Hook Creek near Lake Arrowhead, and it forced an estimated 80,000 people to evacuate their homes.
The Old Fire also contributed to the deaths of 16 people, including nine children, when heavy rains on scorched mountainsides unleashed boulder-laden flash floods into Waterman Canyon and Cable Canyon north of San Bernardino, on Christmas Day 2003.
The post-fire erosion deaths brought the death toll linked to the Old Fire to 22. It was one of the deadliest fire-flood episodes in California history. Costs of the Old Fire were estimated at $42 million.
Fowler, 31, was not charged with or tried for the post-fire deaths. He was convicted in August 2012 of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson. A jury recommended the death penalty, and a judge on Monday in San Bernardino agreed, sentencing Fowler to death.
But the last time California imposed the death penalty was in 2006, the same year another arson-set fire killed five firefighters in Twin Pines, above Cabazon in the San Gorgonio Pass.
The Esperanza Fire started early Oct. 26, 2006, three years and a day after the start of the Old Fire. It burned up a drainage into Twin Pines and overwhelmed the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57, who were set up to protect a vacant home on Gorgonio View Road.
Fatally injured in the firestorm that day were Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, Pablo Cerda, 24, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, Jason Robert McKay, 27, and Jess Edward McLean, 27.
Raymond Lee Oyler, a mechanic with ties to Cabazon, Banning and Beaumont, was convicted in March 2009 of five counts of murder, and sentenced to death in June 2009.
Given Fowler's death sentence on Monday, it's expected he will eventually join Oyler on California's death row, a limbo that includes more than 700 other men and women who have been sentenced to death for crimes including murder and torture.
Whether Fowler, Oyler and the others are ever literally put to death by the state remains to be determined. The last time California executed an inmate was Jan. 17, 2006, when convicted murderer Clarence Ray Allen was killed by lethal injection in the death chamber at San Quentin State Prison.