SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — Trial is set to begin for a man charged with setting a Southern California wildfire that destroyed 1,000 homes and caused five deadly heart attacks nearly a decade ago.
Rickie Lee Fowler, 30, will go on trial Monday on arson and five murder counts with special circumstances that make him eligible for the death penalty.
Prosecutors alleged that he set the Old Fire, which erupted in the foothills above San Bernardino in October 2003 and scorched 91,000 acres over nine days.
Fowler was a suspect almost after the fire began, when witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. Investigators acting on a phone tip interviewed Fowler several months later, but didn't have enough evidence to press charges until six years after the fire.
The charge at the time signaled a tough new standard for arson cases in a region beset by wildfires that sometimes lead to firefighter and civilian deaths. The Old Fire was one of several that raged simultaneously throughout Southern California that month.
Fowler, who was serving time for burglary when he was charged in connection to the wildfire, has pleaded not guilty to the arson and murder counts. He has said in jailhouse interviews that he was badgered into confessing to starting the fire.
He denied that he was the man who got out of the van and tossed a lit road flare into the brush.
"The community wants to crucify someone. They're angry. I understand," he told the San Bernardino Sun. "I guess they're looking for justice, but get the right person. I had nothing to do with it. I really didn't."
The suspected driver of the van, Martin Valdez Jr., was later shot and killed in an unrelated incident in the town of Muscoy.
While in prison awaiting trial, Fowler was charged with sodomizing a jail inmate in an August 2010 attack.
He was convicted in the case in February and sentenced to three 25-years-to-life prison terms.