Mourners gather for first funeral of five firefighters, praise officials for charging man

Friday, November 3rd 2006, 6:16 am
By: News On 6

VICTORVILLE, Calif. (AP) _ Family and colleagues of the five firefighters killed by a wind-swept wildfire praised authorities Friday for charging a man with murder and arson in the case as they prepared for their loved ones' funerals.

``I knew that they were going to find him. I'd been praying about it,'' Brenda Zimmerman told CBS's ``The Early Show'' on Friday.

Her brother Jason McKay's funeral in Victorville was the first for the five members of the U.S. Forest Service fire crew who were overrun by flames Oct. 26 in Southern California's San Jacinto Mountains. A public memorial service for all five men was planned for Sunday.

On Thursday, authorities charged Raymond Lee Oyler of Beaumont with arson and murder _ crimes that carry a possible death sentence.

``This arrest really does help with some of the closure, the healing that we in the Forest Service community, and in the families, need,'' said Jeanne Wade Evans, the San Bernardino National Forest supervisor.

Oyler was charged with five counts of murder, 11 counts of arson and 10 counts of use of an incendiary device. The charges include seven fires in June, one in July, one in September and two in October.

Oyler denied any involvement.

In a jailhouse interview, he told The Press-Enterprise of Riverside that he was home with his baby girl when the deadly fire broke out and that he had ``no idea why they came to me.''

``All I know is I didn't do this and they're trying to pin this on me,'' Oyler said. ``They need to find the real person.''

District Attorney-elect Rod Pacheco said the evidence against Oyler was ``overwhelming,'' but he did not disclose a motive and would not say what led investigators to Oyler.

The 36-year-old auto mechanic with tattoos on his neck and forearms appeared in court in handcuffs as his attorney entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.

Oyler ``adamantly denies involvement in this fire and in any of these fires,'' attorney Mark McDonald said outside court. ``He's very distraught and scared ... The finger is pointing at him.''

Oyler, who said nothing during the brief hearing, was held without bail.

Authorities were trying to determine whether Oyler has any links to at least 40 fires in the area since May, according to an official involved in the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is continuing.

Investigators were also looking at a 1998 fire in which the pilot of a firefighting aircraft died in a crash. That blaze burned more than 24,000 acres in the San Jacintos and had a burn pattern similar to last week's fire, the official said.

The charges are punishable by life in prison without parole or the death penalty. Prosecutors will decide in the next 60 days which sentence to seek.

``The feelings of the surviving family members of the victims will be consulted and be given great weight by our office in what is always a difficult decision,'' Pacheco said.

Last week's fire was stoked by Santa Ana winds as it swept southwest through the mountains about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The flames overran the fire crew, destroyed 34 homes and charred more than 60 square miles before being contained Monday.

Three firefighters died when the flames swept over their truck, and a fourth died soon after at a hospital. A fifth was taken off life support and died this week. The last time so many firefighters were killed battling a wildfire was July 1994, when 14 were killed near Glenwood Springs, Colo., according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

McKay, 27, of Apple Valley, moved with his family to the Victorville area from Minnesota when he was a boy. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service for five years and was the assistant engine operator on the Engine 57 crew.

``He loved being a firefighter,'' Staci Burger, McKay's fiancee, told The Press-Enterprise. ``It was what he wanted to do since he was born.''

Funeral services were also scheduled over the next several days for firefighters Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; and Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.