Death Penalty for Man Who Started California Wildfires

The wildfire that claimed the lives of five brave firefighters in Southern California in October of 2006 was intentionally started. 38-year-old Raymond Lee Oyler was found guilty of arson in connection with the blaze that also destroyed several homes in the Twin Pines community. Oyler's 23-year-old daughter cried as his sentence was handed down by Riverside judge W. Charles Morgan. Death.

Battling Esperanza
Battling Esperanza

The blaze, dubbed The Esperanza Fire, was suspected to be arson early on and Oyler was arrested just five days afterward. The same day the fifth firefighter succumbed to his injuries and died in a hospital bed.

The mood in the courtroom remained somber throughout the trial as the victims' families addressed the jury, one by one, sharing memories of their loved ones as well as their heartbreak at having lost them so senselessly. D.A. Michael Hestrin described the conditions that the imperiled men must have endured during their last moments - temperatures well over one-thousand degrees, 70 foot high flames. Several jurors wept. Even Oyler's own family offered sincere apologies to the slain men's families.

Oyler in court
Oyler in court

Jury Bias Based on Victims' Occupation?

Oyler himself seems to have accepted his sentence with little surprise, according to his lawyer. He is said to have been depressed for many years, and has been on a steady stream of anti-depressants for most of them. (I'll save my two-cents on anti-depressants for another hub.)

Was this man's fate dealt with more severely on account of his victims being firefighters? You bet. Is this fair? I think so.

Let me first establish that I've always had a bad feeling about the death penalty. Aside from all the wrongful convictions that have resulted in innocent people being killed by their own government, I am not one hundred percent convinced that two wrongs make a right in such situations.

In this case, though, I can't lay an ounce of blame on those who sought death for this man or on those who chose to make it happen.

Killing anyone intentionally is the most wrong thing you can do according to the American justice system (I'm saying this theoretically, as it doesn't always seem so). To take the life of someone who selflessly dedicated their existence to protecting and rescuing others is deplorable perhaps beyond the murder of a civilian. If there is a hierarchy of murder, denoting which factors classify each killing as being more or less ethically awful than another, this crime has to be pretty high up on the nasty list.

Firefighters exit the courtroom after sentencing
Firefighters exit the courtroom after sentencing

What Now?

Oyler will now reside on Death Row at San Quentin penitentiary until his sentence is carried out. It is unlikely that there will be an appeal.

Esperanza was not the first fire Oyler had set, and his cold lack of remorse during the trial ensured that any who might have otherwise felt some sympathy toward him didn't. He laughed openly after the sentence was delivered.

For the Fallen

I've always had a deep respect for firefighters. It seems that they are born with a slightly different genetic code than the rest of us. That tough exterior with a heart of gold isn't cliche, it really exists in these remarkable people. They have to be this way. Whiny, dramatic, petty types wouldn't make it through training and while these men and women may look intimidating, its kind of a prerequisite for wanting to spend your life saving others that one has a kind heart.

Recently, I watched over a hundred local firemen battle a blazing fire in the building just next door to mine. They saved lives, property, and my home (which had literally been inches away from catching fire). After it all, they were cordial and kind. I would have forgiven them for being gruff and grumpy, but no. They offered me a vehicle to sit in and warm up (it was winter) and were much more friendly than they could have been after breaking their backs saving our behinds for the previous five hours!

So, I'd like to dedicate a bit of this hub to remembering why Oyler's sentence was so swift and harsh. With no disrespect to his family (who are also heartbroken), these are the reasons that not too many will miss him when he's gone.

Jess McLean

Jess was 27 years old. Throughout his life he had chosen the road less traveled, always challenging himself and taking on the toughest tasks. Those who knew him said he'd never hesitate to jump in and help out in any situation. His family describes him as "one of the good guys," and will miss his loving nature and sense of adventure. He leaves behind a young wife, Karen.

Daniel Hoover-Najera

Daniel was just 20 years old, and loved his job. He had told his mother that he put his heart into his work and was glad to do so. He loved to skate, play video games, and engage in other youthful activities when he was off duty. He had recently gotten engaged to be married to his sweetheart.

Pablo Cerda

At 23, Pablo had been on the job just two years, and planned to become a paramedic. He was proud of his athleticism, lifting weights and playing sports in his free time. He was a driven young man who was his little sister's hero and the apple of his father's eye.

Mark Loutzenhiser

Captain of Engine 57, Mark was 43 and loved to play softball. Everyone knew him as the guy who could do anything; the person you'd want to have by your side in a bad situation. Mark loved the outdoors and often took his wife & five children camping.

Jason McKay

"Sweetie, this one looks bad. I love you."

Those were 27-year-old Jason McKay's last words to his fiance as he headed in to fight The Esperanza. Jason had a kind & fun-loving nature and was known to be a bit of a prankster. He was also a very forgiving person. In an early statement, his sister said that Jason would likely have forgiven the arsonist.

Do You Agree With Oyler's Sentence?

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Comments 35 comments

lxxy profile image

lxxy 7 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

Just...such a wonderful thing here, Roobee.

I too have many notions and twistie turnee views about death penalties. I'll say this, though...I think anyone who opens fire upon another person first shouldn't need a trial, they've now decided they no longer want to play nice.

And a toe tag is a good footnote for your species to follow. It's not that I hate anyone, I just hate poor actions.

"I'll save my two-cents on anti-depressants for another hub."

Can't wait for it. I bet you'll find me agreeing with you.

men are dorks profile image

men are dorks 7 years ago from Namibia

I 100% agree with you and Ixxy, but alas, soon it will happen again. his guy should not be put to death humanely, he should carry the same fear and pain that dead has felt. he should also be burned to death, in public...

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

I always enjoy your comments, lxxy.

We're not all lost causes, my friend. :) Thanks for reading.

Pete Maida profile image

Pete Maida 7 years ago

This kind of crime has to be dealt with severely. These fires are the worst kind of hell for the people that fight them and a terrible for the people that lose their homes. Nature caused enough pain; we have to stop people from adding to it.

chicamom85 profile image

chicamom85 7 years ago

What a beautiful tribute to those firemen. Very nice hub.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

men are dorks, I'm glad you came by. That's pretty harsh, but again, I understand completely. These men's deaths were harsh.

We can only hope this sends a message to would-be arsonists, but probably not if they don't care for life anyway.

Thanks for your comments.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

Pete, I agree wholeheartedly. I find it impossible to wrap my mind around someone's possible reasoning for doing such a thing. It brings up all kinds of terrible questions.

I appreciate your comments.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

chicamom, thank you so very much for your compliment!

men are dorks profile image

men are dorks 7 years ago from Namibia

Yeah I know it sounds harsh and untactful, but what about those firemen's families. Sorry bout it, but I just get so angry at stupid people who show no remorse or doesnt take others into consid. xxx

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

No need to be sorry m.a.d. - I hear ya. It boggles the mind.

Paper Moon profile image

Paper Moon 7 years ago from In the clouds

This is indeed a beautiful tribute to the firefighters.  I wanted to fight wildfires when I was younger with a passion.  However, I do take issue with the sentence.  The death sentence should be reserved for those who purposefully slay an innocent person.  Unless he started the fire to kill people specifically, then I believe it to be an unjust ruling.  It should be obvious that death can result from any fire, but I do not believe that was his goal.  He is a sick individual and should never see the light of day.  But the death sentence should be reserved for those who intend to kill some one in cold blood (sorry, pun not intended in any way).  I did cry when I heard about the firefighters. 

Mind you it would have been great karma if he got caught in his own blaze.

I still think it was a wonderful hub.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

You make a good point, Paper Moon, one I've been discussing with friends and relatives today as well. It is true that while he knew the fires could likely result in death, I guess there's nothing to say that he explicitly intended for someone to die. I feel terrible for his family, too. Wondering if they could have helped him somehow before things got so out of hand..

Tough stuff. Wish people just wouldn't do stuff like this, but that's not reality.

I'm so glad you read this and liked it. Thanks PM.

shibashake profile image

shibashake 7 years ago

A very nice tribute RooBee. I think people who are really unhappy and want to self-destruct should not bring others down with them. If they are that unhappy - then just self destruct on their own without destroying the happiness of others.

As for the death penalty - it may help bring some closure to the families of the firefighters.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

I always say the same thing. If you are so bad off that you're going to do yourself in, why take other people with you? So unfair.

One of the brothers of a victim said in court that while he knew nothing could equalize what had happened, the sentence would help (as you said) to bring closure.

Always a pleasure to have you by shiba, thank you! :)

blondepoet profile image

blondepoet 7 years ago from australia

You know people are fully aware of the laws, yet they still go ahead and defy them knowing what could happen to them. I can really relate to this story as we had the bush fires here recently that killed quite a few hundred innocent people. It seems that one of the arsonists was a fire fighter himself. As far as I am concerned you don't do it in the first place, you don't kill innocent people, whose families are left to carry the pain and loss for the rest of their lives. You do the crime you deserve what u get.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

blondepoet, so happy you came by to read my hub. I think the prosecutor in this case was following that line of thought: that this guy can't claim he didn't intend to kill when it's common sense that fires kill.

I remember reading about those fires, bp, so tragic. We had an arson investigator in California a few years back who had been setting fires and then would go pretend to try and solve them, giving press conferences and everything. Creepy.

frogdropping profile image

frogdropping 7 years ago

RooBee - what an incredibley tragic event. For all concerned.

I'm unsure re the death penalty. I have no sympathy for the guilty - not when it's irrefutable. But I do know that despite DNA tests and goodness knows what else the justice system can still get it wrong.

However - Olyer has been fairly judged from what I'm given to understand. And without a shadow of doubt he knew exactly what he was doing.

One thing I do though though is that death by fire is one of the most painful ways to die. Unless the smoke kills you first. Which is also rather vile. And I'm sure Olyer would have known that horrible fact as well.

To finish - I hope those concerned find some peace from the torment they must all be experiencing.

A tough article to write RooBee but a job well done.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

Nice to see you frogdropping - I hope that for all who were affected by this, too. Fire is certainly a nasty one, another reason why ff's are so brave to go into them willingly! When we were evacuated due to the next bldg being ablaze, it really brought home how awful it would be to get trapped and not be able to get out.

Thank you.

badco - always a pleasure to have you by as well. You are probably right on that one - getting to die only adds to their little legacy and is also kind of an easy way out. It would probably be worse to hang around in a max security prison the rest of your life.

Thank you for the kind words.

Paper Moon profile image

Paper Moon 7 years ago from In the clouds

A beautiful and haunting hub. I had to come back for another read.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

Wow, PM, thanks.

someonewhoknows profile image

someonewhoknows 7 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

As it says in the bible's new testament though judgment must come,woe unto those through whom that judgement comes.

We may not have consciously done anything wrong in our eyes but we might have in others eyes.

My interpetation is if someone is karmically libel for some misdeed,those who judge must remember that what they do will also be judged.

Mercy begets mercy and judgement begets judgement.

Ommission of something we should have done can be just as bad as commission of something we shouldn't have done.

As far as I know the death penalty has never stopped anyone from committing murder or any crime punishable by death.

The prison system does not correct them.In fact where I'm from it's a crime to be homeless.Sometimes the answer to the problem seems simple,and yet no one cares about solving it until something tragic happens.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

someonewhoknows, I appreciate your reading and commenting. I personally don't think that the death penalty solves anything in the scheme of things. I certainly wouldn't want any part in being responsible for deciding whether someone should live or die. I feel bad for everyone who got pulled in to this by no choice of their own from the victims to the arsonist's family to the jurors. Its just terrible all around.

I'm the first to admit that the US justice system & penal system is tragically flawed.

Thanks again for coming by

Sunny Robinson profile image

Sunny Robinson 7 years ago from Tennessee

RooBee, beautiful hub.  I love when there are people that show appreciation for others, civilians or not.  The great thing about this hub specifically that it won't let us forget.  We can read back on this and remember the tragedy.

I also have gray views on the death penalty.  It gives me unease to try to formulate exact opinions or feelings on death penalty.  I'm aware that there is no black/white on this one.  Not even a darker shade of gray or a lighter shade.

However, I can't begin to imagine the pain the fire and the smoke brought.  The fact is, the firefighters knew they could die fighting fires.  But when someone intentionally sets them and there was no real point to it, it seems so senseless.

Again, nice hub! :D

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

Thanks, Sunny (btw, that's my mom's name).

I think you and I have close to the same thoughts on the death penalty. Seems like its hard for us to process such things and I know, for me, passing judgment on others may feel better in the short run but is hollow in eventuality. The whole situation just sits wrong in one's stomach and nothing but time can (hopefully) ease it.

I appreciate you taking the time to read and to leave such thoughtful comments.

Misha profile image

Misha 7 years ago from DC Area

Well, as you rightly put it - two wrongs don't make right. Never. It might seem right on the surface, but it never is...

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

Nice to see you, Misha, my very first fan. Thank you for reading and for your thoughts. Agreed.

shamelabboush profile image

shamelabboush 7 years ago

Sorry for all those brave figherfighters! This is so sad! How can a man do this and kill people just like that? Thanks for bringing their story.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

I hear you, shamelabboush, I just don't get it and probably never will. I don't think that mentally stable folks can quite grasp the "why" of these kind of things.

Thanks so much for reading and for your comments.

Sunny Robinson profile image

Sunny Robinson 7 years ago from Tennessee

RooBee I just checked back on this, so sorry. Wow, I didn't realize it's your mom's name. Sunny is actually one of my many nicknames, but my name is Kay. I found one of my family names 'Robinson' and thought it rather fit.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

Hey there, Sunny girl. My mom's given name isn't actually Sunny but she's always gone by it so it seems more like her name than anything else to me.

You seem a sunny type and your avatar certainly reflects it too (not just b/c of the lighting). :)

Elena. profile image

Elena. 7 years ago from Madrid

Excellent, well balanced article. I'm not in favor of death sentence, just as you said two wrongs don't make a right and besides, it's been proven, over and over, innefective to stop crime rates from occurring or even escalating. Having said that, I could kill the bastard with my bare hands, it's just incomprehensible to me how human beings can be so sick and twisted.

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

Elena, it is incomprehensible - at least to people who are anywhere in the vicinity of normal. There is certainly something wrong with a person who does such things. Thanks for reading, I really appreciate your compliments!

puppascott profile image

puppascott 7 years ago from Michigan (As far as you know...)

I enjoyed your take on this RooBee. I am a fan of the death penalty, and anyone found guilty of the willful death of a civil servant should not be spared the full punishment of our laws. I can find no sympathy for those that devalue human life. Unlike his victims, he had his day in court.

Thanks, Scott

RooBee profile image

RooBee 7 years ago from Here Author

Hello, Scott! Thanks for your input. I'm glad to know that you enjoyed this. You are right - the victims, whose only crime was trying to save and help others, did not get their day in court.

However, according to family, at least one of them would most likely have wanted forgiveness for the killer.

Such nasty conundrums are created when people do horrible things like this. If only people could stop projecting their own sickness out in to the world...ah, but now I'm dreaming I suppose. :)

Thanks so much for coming by!

Highvoltagewriter profile image

Highvoltagewriter 6 years ago from Savannah GA.

Hello RooBee, I just now discover you and this hub...Quite powerful! I am from California and when I was young I fought forest fires up around Garberville in northern California. The summer that I was employed by the California Department of Forestry was one of the worst summers for forest fires up until recent times. We lost two of our men (at our fire station) from a natural fire and it broke all of are hearts. That same year, there were two fire fighters who started several fires!

The only way they were caught is that they got drunk and passed out at the scene of one of their fires! I could not comprehend how they could do this being firefighters

Now when I think about this situation that you describe, I am greatly disturbed! How could ANYONE do something so terrible? I have been back and forth about the death penalty, and yet in this situation I feel the death penalty is the best option. The reason for this is why should the tax payers have to pay for keeping this murder alive?

Also, I believe death is more humane, for someone like this would need to be put in solitaire confinement. The reason why I feel this is that if he was put out in the main population, someone would find out who he was and would probably kill him! This was great hub and you are a brilliant writer who has done her research!

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