Jurors who convicted Rickie Lee Fowler of multiple murder and arson charges for starting the 2003 Old Fire are scheduled to return to court the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 20 to hear opening statements in the trial’s penalty phase, which could bring a death penalty recommendation for Fowler.
The eight-woman, four-man panel is expected to see and hear about eight days’ worth of evidence and testimony before going into deliberations for a second time in Fowler’s trial – this time to decide whether to recommend execution or life in prison without parole for the 30-year-old former San Bernardino resident.
Fowler was convicted Wednesday, Aug. 15 of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson for starting the fire October 25, 2003 in Waterman Canyon above San Bernardino.
Driven by changing winds over the next several days, the fire swept from Devore and Crestline east to Cedar Glen near Lake Arrowhead, but also down from the San Bernardino Mountains into the Del Rosa housing tract in San Bernardino.
The fire destroyed 91,000 acres of brush, timber, pieces of suburb and chunks of mountain towns. More than 1,000 structures, mostly homes, were destroyed. Six people died, all of them men who suffered heart attacks from the stress of the fire, authorities said.
Fowler was charged with five of those deaths.
The Old Fire was one of about a dozen blazes that raged simultaneously throughout Southern California that month. It burned for nearly two weeks and merged with the adjacent Grand Prix fire, which started above Fontana.
While the guilt phase of the trial focused on convincing jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Fowler set the killer blaze, the penalty phase will look at Fowler’s life to show jurors that there were either mitigating or aggravating circumstances in it, to resolve whether he should go to prison for life or die in California’s execution chamber.
The five victims were Robert Taylor, 54, Charles Cunningham, 93, and James McDermith, 70, all of San Bernardino; Chad Williams, 70, of Crestline; and Ralph McWilliams, 67, of Cedar Glen.
Fowler has been in prison since 2004 on two burglary convictions. Earlier this year he was sentenced to 75-years-to-life for raping a man in jail while awaiting trial in the Old Fire case.
RICHARD K. De ATLEY and JOHN ASBURY
If you are charged with a crime, contact an experienced Orange County Bail Bondsman to assist you in any bail situtation.