Suspect In Deadly California Arson Fire Pleads Not Guilty

Monday, March 19th 2007, 8:01 am
By: News On 6

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) _ A man accused of starting a raging wildfire that killed five firefighters pleaded not guilty Monday to new charges that connect him to 23 arson fires.

Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, 17 counts of using an incendiary device and 23 counts of arson, including the deadly Esperanza Fire.

He was arrested Oct. 31 after the fire raced through the foothills near Banning, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

Oyler, an auto mechanic, was originally charged with fewer counts, but prosecutors added 19 new counts last week, saying they had linked him to 23 fires in all. Oyler also pleaded not guilty to the original charges involving a handful of fires.

``The evidence is going to show that there was a series of fires, all started by Mr. Oyler, that the devices that Mr. Oyler used had distinct similarities and that there's an evolution in the devices,'' said Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin. ``There was also an evolution of locations and terrain that the defendant was choosing as regards to each fire.''

Oyler's sister, Joanna Oyler, and his girlfriend, Crystal Breazille, were excluded from the courtroom because prosecutors plan to call them as witnesses during the preliminary hearing.

The deadly fire was ignited amid fierce Santa Ana winds and eventually charred more than 60 square miles in the San Jacinto Mountains and adjacent areas in Riverside County, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

An evidence log obtained by The Associated Press last week shows investigators recovered pieces of an incendiary devices from at least four of the newly connected blazes.

A sheriff's report also obtained by the AP last week said Oyler's cousin told investigators that the suspect spent a night one week before the deadly blaze ``casing the area'' for a good arson location.

Investigators say Oyler's girlfriend also told them he wanted to start a fire as ``a diversion'' so he could get his pit bull out of the Banning Animal Shelter.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald said the cousin was not a credible witness because she had a feud with Oyler and his closest relatives. McDonald also said Oyler's girlfriend was badgered by investigators and now denies telling them any of the information in the report.