Arson Fires Allegedly Were "Diversion"

The Esperanza Fire fueled by Santa Ana winds burns near homes in Banning, Calif., 90 miles east of Los Angeles Friday, Oct. 27, 2006.
AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
A man charged with setting a wildfire that killed five federal firefighters told his cousin he spent an entire night one week before the deadly blaze "casing the area" for a good arson location, according to a sheriff's report.

The report obtained by The Associated Press Thursday also said Raymond Lee Oyler's girlfriend told investigators Oyler wanted to start a fire as "a diversion" so he could get his pit bull out of the Banning Animal Shelter.

Oyler was arrested Oct. 31 after a wind-whipped fire raced through the foothills near Banning, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The 36-year-old auto mechanic has pleaded not guilty to arson and murder charges.

Oyler's attorney, Mark McDonald, said the cousin was not a credible witness because she had a feud with Oyler and his closest relatives. McDonald said Oyler's girlfriend was badgered by investigators and she now denies telling them any of the information in the report.

"She was badgered, just badgered," McDonald told the AP. "They would say 'Didn't you know this?' and 'Didn't you see this?' and they were telling her she could be implicated" in the arson.

Oyler's cousin, Jill Frame, told investigators that she was at Oyler's house on Oct. 22 when he and his girlfriend began arguing because he hadn't come home the night before, according to the report.

Oyler told his cousin he had slept in his car outside Banning High School because he was searching for a good place to start a fire on a nearby mountain, the report said. Frame also told investigators that Oyler told her he had started several wildfires in the Banning area earlier that day, it said. Investigators noted in their report that three arson wildfires were started on Oct. 22 in the same area.

Oyler's girlfriend, Crystal Breazille, told investigators that Oyler told her about using a cigarette-and-matches device to start fires, although she never saw the devices, the report said. Oyler is charged with 10 arsons in addition to the deadly Esperanza Fire and investigators believe cigarette-and-matches devices were used to start nine of those blazes.

Breazille also said she knew Oyler had started an arson fire in Moreno Valley several months before and that Oyler collected newspaper clippings about fires, the report said.

In a subsequent visit two days before that start of the deadly fire, Frame said, Oyler asked her for a ride so he could set the mountain on fire, according to another sheriff's report obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

McDonald, the attorney, pointed out that his client wasn't charged with seven other arsons started in the same time period using cigarette-and-matches devices because he was at work at the time the fires started.

Prosecutor Michael Hestrin said he could not comment on the reports.

Oyler is expected to appear Monday in a Riverside courtroom for a hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed with his trial.

He was charged Nov. 2 with five counts of first-degree murder, 11 counts of arson and 10 counts of use of an incendiary device in connection to the deadly fire and 10 other fires in the same area since early June.

Firefighters Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; and Pablo Cerda, 23, were overrun by flames on Oct. 26 while protecting a home. McKay, McLean and Hoover-Najera died at the scene. Loutzenhiser died several hours later and Cerda died several days later.
By Gillian Flaccus