- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RIVERSIDE (AP) — An auto mechanic accused of setting a raging wildfire that killed five firefighters was back in court yesterday to face additional arson charges as the first detailed evidence on the blazes was presented.

A state fire investigator testified that Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, likely experimented with different arson methods as early as five months before the fatal fire.

Mr. Oyler is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, 17 counts of using an incendiary device and 23 counts of arson, including the deadly fire. He pleaded not guilty to additional arson charges before the start of a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence against him for a trial. He was arrested Oct. 31, soon after a wind-whipped fire raced through the foothills near Banning, overrunning firefighters as they attempted to protect a house.

Capt. Charlie Dehart of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said he found remains of cigarette-and-match devices at fires in the area as early as May 16.

Capt. Dehart testified that he was called to investigate nine suspected arson fires in the Banning area between May 16 and July 9. He said that at some of the fires, he found a cigarette-and-match device that contained red-tipped wooden matches, called “safety matches,” bundled around a Marlboro Light cigarette with a rubber band or duct tape.

“There are similarities in the placement of the devices, as far as they’re all on the right-hand side of the road, they’re all in wide spots in the road, the matches are all similar … and they’re all clumped into one geographic location,” he said.

The wooden stick matches were unusual, Capt. Dehart said.

“In my 20 years, I have never seen it,” he said. “They’re just not common. Usually we see paper matches or actual paper matchbook devices.”

Another witness, state forestry fire investigator Capt. Matthew Gilbert, said the placement of the fires also appeared to evolve over time, with the arsonist choosing steeper terrain near drainages, which can funnel the fire and create a more dangerous blaze.

Outside court yesterday, defense attorney Mark McDonald said the devices the investigators described were so different that they could not be the work of one person.

He also pointed out that the first fire was started with a sophisticated device while later fires were started with a single match thrown upon the ground.

“To me, that doesn’t go with logic,” he said. “They started with the most sophisticated device in May, then went to matchsticks and then went back up. I don’t think you can connect all these cases that easily.”

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