Legal Theory

Man Accused of Setting Forest Fire Faces 5 Murder Charges in Heart-Attack Deaths

A California man accused of setting a massive 2003 forest fire by throwing a lighted road flare from his vehicle in the San Bernardino Mountains has also been charged with first-degree murder concerning the deaths of five men who suffered heart attacks allegedly brought about by the stress of fleeing the flames.

All five suffered from heart disease and died within hours or days of the fire. So the prosecution has filed felony-murder charges against Rickie Lee Fowler, 28, on the theory that the deaths occurred during the commission of a felony, reports the Associated Press. If convicted in the San Bernardino County case, Fowler could potentially face the death penalty.

Fowler has not yet appeared in court in the case and does not have an attorney of record to comment on his behalf, according to the news agency

Another suspect allegedly in the van with Fowler was fatally shot in an unrelated incident in 2006, according to authorities.

The murder charges against Fowler signal a new era in forest-fire prosecutions, following a death penalty conviction in Riverside County earlier this year of auto mechanic Raymond Lee Oyler in a 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five federal firefighters. He is thought to be the first defendant ever sentenced to death in a wildfire case, the AP reports.

“The lesson of the Esperanza fire is that anyone who starts a fire deliberately is putting himself in jeopardy of the death penalty, even if there was no intent,” says author John Maclean, who is writing a book on Oyler’s case. “The cat’s out of the bag here. You don’t have to have an Oyler case anymore to go for first-degree murder or in fact to go for the death penalty.”

Forest fires can also cause mudslides notes Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter Cassie MacDuff, who asked District Attorney Mike Ramos whether Fowler might also be charged in the mudslide deaths of 14 at a Waterman Canyon church camp on Christmas Day in 2003.

“Unfortunately, the mudslide came too long after the blaze to prove that it wouldn’t have occurred without the fire, Deputy District Attorney Vic Stull said. But prosecutors did consider it,” MacDuff writes.

Additional coverage:

Los Angeles Times: ” San Bernardino man faces charges in fatal 2003 wildfire”

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