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Calif. inmate sentenced to death for 2003 wildfire

8:42 AM, Jan 29, 2013   |    comments
Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, sits in a Southern California courtroom before being sentenced to death Monday for a 2003 wildfire that killed five via heart attacks. (Photo: Stan Lim, The Press-Enterprise, via AP)
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Following a jury's recommendation, a California judge Monday sentenced a prison rapist to death for starting a massive 2003 wildfire that caused five fatal heart attacks, which jurors decided was murder.

Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, was convicted in August of first-degree murder and arson for tossing a road flare into bone-dry brush above San Bernardino in October 2003 because his godfather had kicked him out of his house, the Riverside Press-Enterprise says.

Dubbed the Old Fire, it burned for nine days across 142 square miles in the mountains east of Los Angeles, killing five men fighting or escaping flames that destroyed more than 1,000 homes, cabins and other structures. The blaze was one of several that swept across Southern California at the time.

Based on a tip, Fowler was interviewed for months afterward but investigators lacked sufficient evidence. He was finally charged in 2009 with murder and arson while serving time for a burglary conviction. Before he came to trial, Fowler was convicted of raping a cellmate and sentenced to three terms of 25 years to life.

Prosecuting Fowler for murder was similar to cases in which bank robbers were likewise convicted for tellers who died of heart attacks.

Here's how the Los Angeles Times sums up the prosecution's view of Fowler:

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bullock had portrayed Fowler as a sadistic felon who inflicted "misery and mayhem" on those who crossed his path throughout his life. The prosecution said he raped and brutalized two girlfriends, one of whom was pregnant with his son, and sodomized a jail cellmate, turning him into a "sex slave."

Fowler's lawyers argued that the death penalty was inappropriate because the men died from heart attacks, and that there remained doubt about whether he actually started the blaze. Fowler contended that a friend, Martin Valdez Jr., tossed the flare. Valdez, who was a suspect, was shot and killed in 2006.

The defense painted Fowler as a victim of methamphetamine-addicted parents and sexual abuse by a neighbor.

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael Smith could have sentenced Fowler to life without parole, but instead agreed with the jury's recommendation in September that he be sent to death row, at San Quentin State Prison, near San Francisco.

In 2009, Raymond Lee Oyler was sentenced to death for setting the October 2006 Esperanza Fire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Michael Winter, USA TODAY

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