SAN BERNARDINO – Convicted of setting a large and deadly fire in 2003, a Superior Court judge sentenced Rickie Lee Fowler to death this week. Fowler, 31, was sentenced to die by lethal injection, a penalty imposed by a jury panel in September after determining he was guilty of five counts of first degree murder and two counts of arson.
Known as the Old Fire, a costly blaze that was set in Oct. 2003, it raged for several days near Waterman Canyon and burned 91,000 acres in the mountains, destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and caused the deaths of five people who died from heart attacks during the blaze.
The jury upheld the charges of prosecutors who claimed the fire caused those deaths. Those who died were Charles Cunningham, James McDermith, Ralph McWilliams, Robert Taylor and Chad Williams. San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith upheld the jury’s recommendation that Fowler receive the death penalty.
Fowler wasn’t indicted for the crime until six years after the fire. In 2009, investigators identified two men, including Fowler and Martin Valdez, Jr., as suspects in the crime. A month after the fire, Fowler was convicted for another crime and served out his sentence at Salinas Valley State Prison in Northern California. Valdez, meanwhile, was shot to death in Muscoy, a section of San Bernardino, in Feb. 2006.
The fire burned for nine days and reportedly caused $170 million in property losses. Fowler’s trial began on July 9, 2012 and he was found guilty on Aug. 15. Jury members deliberated over a four-day span before returning the guilty verdicts.
Press-Enterprise: OLD FIRE: Arsonist sentenced to death