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Rickie Lee Fowler sits in a courtroom before being sentenced Monday in San Bernardino, Calif. The Press-Enterprise | Stan Lim

Arsonist sentenced to death for fatal wildfire

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – An arsonist was sentenced to death on Monday for killing five men who died of heart attacks during a wildfire that ripped through the hills east of Los Angeles a decade ago.

Superior Court Judge Michael Smith had the option of sentencing Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, to the harshest penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Today, after nearly ten years, justice has now been secured for the victims and their families, and those whose lives were affected by the actions of Rickie Lee Fowler,” said District Attorney Michael Ramos.

Fowler was convicted in August of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson.

Prosecutors said Fowler lit the fire in 2003 out of rage after he was thrown out of a house where his family was staying.

The Old Fire scorched 91,000 acres in October 2003 and destroyed 1,000 buildings while burning for nine days in the foothills above San Bernardino. The men died after their homes burned or as they tried to evacuate.

Fowler became a suspect after witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. Investigators interviewed Fowler several months after the fire but didn’t have enough evidence to file charges until six years later.

Fowler was serving time for burglary when he was charged with starting the blaze – one of many fires that raged simultaneously throughout Southern California. He was convicted of sodomizing an inmate and sentenced to three terms of 25 years to life while in prison awaiting trial.

Prosecutors at the arson trial portrayed Fowler as a sadistic felon who raped, robbed and tortured people throughout his life.

Defense attorneys said Fowler never acknowledged starting the fire and suffered a horrific childhood with methamphetamine-addicted parents and a neighbor who molested him.

Prosecutors said Fowler gave authorities a note in 2008 acknowledging he was there when the fire began. The following year, he told reporters he had been badgered into making a confession.

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