- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

LOS ANGELES | Some 10,000 mourners turned out for the funeral of five firefighters who died trying to save a home from a raging wildfire, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eulogized them for their bravery.

The man charged with being the arsonist who started the fire is going on trial on murder charges Monday, and the search for an impartial jury may be difficult.

Prosecutor Michael Hestrin said it could be at least two weeks before any testimony is heard in the trial of Raymond Lee Oyler, who is charged with setting some two dozen fires, including the deadly Esperanza fire in 2006 that killed the five well-known firefighters.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald tried to get the trial moved from Riverside County, claiming intense pretrial publicity and “a lynch mob atmosphere” in the community that would make it impossible to choose jurors who have no opinions about the case.

Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan turned down the motion in November, saying the passage of time may have cooled emotions.

“I bet we can find a jury that doesn’t even know about the Esperanza fire and the deaths,” Judge Morgan said.

Mr. Oyler, a 38-year-old auto mechanic, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, 17 counts of using an incendiary device and 23 counts of arson.

He was arrested Oct. 31, 2006, five days after the five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and their engine were overrun by flames as they tried to protect a house in a mountain community about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The blaze charred more than 60 square miles and destroyed 34 homes.

Mr. Oyler has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

The prosecution is expected to paint Mr. Oyler as a serial arsonist who set fires using red-tipped wooden matches bundled around a cigarette with rubber bands or duct tape. Using expert witnesses, Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin will seek to show that the methodology links Mr. Oyler to 23 fires.

Mr. Oyler’s attorney will contend that his client was at home with his 7-month-old baby when the Esperanza fire began and had no access to a car at the time because his girlfriend was shopping for baby supplies.

Mr. Oyler told investigators that he went gambling at the Morongo Indian Casino & Spa later that evening, then stopped at a gas station before going to watch the Esperanza fire, according to a report that summarizes Mr. Oyler’s interviews with police.

In pretrial hearings, Mr. McDonald has pointed to another man who was questioned by the U.S. Forest Service in connection with several fires in the same area. But Mr. McDonald complained to the judge that he was unable to get cooperation from the agency.

A sheriff’s report said a cousin of Mr. Oyler told investigators that Mr. Oyler spent a night one week before the deadly blaze casing the area for a good arson location.

Investigators say Mr. Oyler’s fiancee, Crystal Breazile, also told them he wanted to start a fire as a diversion so he could get his pit bull out of an animal shelter.

Mr. McDonald said the cousin was not a credible witness because she had a feud with Mr. Oyler, and that the fiancee was badgered by investigators and now denies making the statement.

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