John Maclean was a writer, editor, and reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 30 years before he resigned his job there in 1995 to write Fire on the Mountain. Maclean was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1943, the second of two children. An avid fly-fisherman, Maclean divides his time between his residence in Washington, D.C. and the Maclean family cabin in Montana. He is the award-winning author of three previous books on wildfire disasters and his latest, The Esperanza Fire, is available now. Read the excerpt from his latest book, The Esperanza Fire (Courtesy- John Maclean) below. To read the author interview, click here.
From The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57
By John N. Maclean
Counterpoint Press, 2013
When a jury returns to a packed courtroom to announce its verdict in a capital murder case, every noise, even a scraped chair or an opening door, resonates like a high- tension cable snap. Spectators stop rustling in their seats; prosecution and defense lawyers and the accused stiffen into attitudes of wariness; the judge looks on owlishly; even the court bailiff, who experiences too much of humanity’s dark side, often stands to attention for this moment. In that atmosphere of heightened expectation, the jury entered a Riverside County Superior Court room in southern California to render a decision in the trial of Raymond Oyler, charged with setting the Esperanza Fire of 2006, which killed a five-man Forest Service engine crew sent to fight the blaze.
The jurors cast quick glances around the courtroom, avoiding eye contact, and tried to wipe any hint of the verdict off their faces as they took their seats. For more than a week of deliberations, they had been “semi-sequestered,” and sheriff ’s deputies had escorted them to and from the jury room. The special security measures had been put in place by Judge W. Charles Morgan, who had mysteriously stopped the trial during the final arguments, closed the courtroom, and called in the jurors one by one to question them. Speculation of a mistrial ran rampant when news leaked of an attempt at jury tampering. But the crisis passed, the closing arguments concluded, and the jury retired.
As the jurors found their chairs, an extra half dozen armed sheriff ’s deputies stood by the defense table where Oyler, in a sober gray suit, sat unshackled. Sheriff’s Deputy David Holland, the court bailiff, warned the spectators against any outburst. “If your emotions get the best of you, please leave the courtroom,” he said.
The spectators, some of whom had driven many miles and arrived breathless at the last minute, divided like families at a rivalrous church wedding. Firefighters, relatives of the victims, and their supporters filled pew-like benches on the side of the courtroom nearest the jury box. The fire people looked scrubbed, upright, and unspeakably sad. On the other side of the courtroom sat Oyler’s family and friends from southern California’s Banning Pass, where the 38-year-old auto mechanic had lived and where the fatal wildfire had burned. They were scattered along a couple of rear benches as far from the jury as possible. Several had napped, nodded, and cast hostile glances during the trial, but there had been no unruly behavior, at least not in the courtroom.
The Oyler clan appeared both hopeful and apprehensive. They had reason for a glimmer of optimism, for the trial had been lengthy and complex. The prosecution had presented no physical evidence to tie Oyler absolutely to the Esperanza Fire. Instead, prosecutors had sought to prove that a string of twenty-three arson fires in the Banning Pass beginning in the spring of 2006 had been the work of one person, and that that person was Raymond Oyler. The ignition devices and locations of the fires showed unmistakable similarities, the prosecutors argued, and followed a classic evolutionary pattern for serial arson, becoming more efficient and destructive over time, and finally deadly. DNA matches, witnesses, tire tracks, and surveillance camera images linked Oyler to several previous fires in the series, and the Esperanza Fire followed the general pattern: the ignition device, for example, was made, like many of the others, with stick matches bound to a Marlboro cigarette, his favorite brand, by a bluish-green rubber band. The prosecution’s case depended on the jury understanding how the totality of evidence formed a pattern that had been engineered, as the chief prosecutor Michael Hestrin charged, by a lone “man bent on destruction.” Adding to the suspense, the legal stakes in the trial were the highest they had ever been in a case like this one: to this date, no one had ever been convicted of murder for setting a wildland fire, even though arson wildfires had caused many deaths and hundreds of arsonists had been caught and punished with fines and prison time.
The jurors, eight women and four men, had fought a long, hard battle to reach a verdict. “I didn’t want to give it away when we walked in, but it was hard to keep an expression off your face,” said one juror. The foreman, Don Estep, handed the court bailiff a thick sheaf of verdict forms. As Judge Morgan read through them and minutes ticked by, the tension grew almost unbearable. “It felt almost like we were in church or at a funeral while the judge read the verdict forms,” said the aunt of one of the victims.
The case against Oyler proceeded with what for the legal system was nearly the speed of light. After the fire, Oyler was identified as a possible suspect in less than forty-eight hours, arrested in less than a week, and tried in less than three years. This happened even though Oyler had initially been dismissed as a suspect by nearly everyone—Riverside County homicide detectives, the FBI, and others. “We almost didn’t investigate him,” said Scott Michaels, a Riverside County homicide detective who pursued Oyler despite opposition. Senior investigators weren’t impressed with the Oyler connection, not at first, because Oyler was linked only to a previous fire, days earlier, and he did not fit the standard FBI profiles for a serial arsonist. Overwhelmed by a flood of leads about the Esperanza Fire and concentrating on more likely suspects, Michaels’superiors ordered him to work on leads directly related to the Es- peranza Fire. After a shouting match with his sergeant, Michaels kept after Oyler, at the risk of his career. His vindication came in dramatic fashion during a meeting of quarreling law enforcement officials, with news that stunned everyone and sent Michaels off to make an arrest.
The mass effort to find the Esperanza Fire arsonist may have followed a choppy course, but it did not come about by chance. Everyone behaves differently when fires break out in the zone where wildfire and civilization overlap: the citizenry becomes aroused, firefighters fight harder, and governmental officials and politicians take notice and intervene. When a serial arsonist is suspected of setting a fire in this critical zone, the wildland–urban interface, the entire community goes to severe threat alert. In short, Michaels was not alone in his passion for the hunt. Southern California is the nation’s top hot spot for wildfire and one of the top three in the world, along with Australia and southern France. Sensitivity to any wildfire runs high, and arson is a regional scourge. Deaths by wildland fire occur with unhappy frequency, but never before had an entire Forest Service engine crew been wiped out by flames, not in southern California or anywhere else.
Though Detective Michaels made the first link to Oyler, his investigation was based on evidence painstakingly gathered by the state’s Cal Fire arson squad. As part of a six-month-long investigation, from the time an arson series had broken out in May of that year, the squad had placed surveillance cameras around the Banning Pass in areas prone to fire. One of the cameras, mounted on a service pole along a roadway, captured the license plate number of a vehicle at the site of an arson fire four days before the Esperanza Fire. The car was Oyler’s, though he had never bothered to register it with the state. Michaels, assigned to the Esperanza case on the fatal morning, backtracked the vehicle to a salvage shop and then traced it to Oyler in a series of quick, dogged, and lucky steps. “Investigations don’t happen like this,” Michaels said later. “They don’t go this fast; you don’t have arguments with police commanders and do cliché stuff like that. It was like being in a movie.” Adding to the sense of unreality, Oyler at one point admitted that he had set the Esperanza Fire, though prosecutors decided the confession was too dodgy to use in court.
District Attorney Rod Pacheco decided to seek the death penalty after a review of the case by thirty regional law enforcement officials. A capital case changes things; if a jury found Oyler guilty of murder, the same jury would sit for a second proceeding and make a separate decision on whether to recommend the ultimate penalty. Prior to the Oyler trial, the closest the legal system had come to a murder conviction for a wildland fire involved John Orr, a longtime fire investigator and captain for southern California’s Glendale Fire Department, located less than one hundred miles from the site of the Esperanza Fire in the heart of southern California’s fire ground.
Orr had been convicted of four counts of murder, with victims including a grandmother and a 2-year-old child, for setting a fire in 1984 in a home improvement store in South Pasadena. After a complex investigation, he came to trial fourteen years later, in 1998. One investigator thought Orr had set more than two thousand fires, many of them wildland fires. The jury that found him guilty failed to agree on the death penalty, and Orr was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Orr, a would-be thriller writer, had helped seal his fate by writing a book, Points of Origin, based on the home improvement store fire, which he had helped investigate and for which he had won much acclaim because he insisted, despite opposition, that it was arson. Unlike Oyler, Orr almost perfectly fit a standard arsonist profile: the hero firefighter who sets fires to make himself famous. In his book, which figured at his trial, Orr addressed the question that haunted his and Oyler’s trials: What sort of a person would do this? At one point Orr described the reaction of his fictional arsonist, Aaron, who bears many similarities to Orr, to the havoc he had created. “Aaron had already killed five people in one of his fires. He rationalized the deaths as he did everything. It wasn’t his fault. The people just acted stupidly and their deaths had nothing to do with the fact that he set the fire. They just reacted too slowly. ‘It was too bad about the baby, but, shit, it wasn’t my fault.’”
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