SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) - A jury on Wednesday found a California man guilty of murdering five people who had heart attacks after he deliberately started a blaze that ballooned into a massive wildfire.
Jurors in San Bernardino found 30-year-old Rickie Fowler guilty of setting the Old Fire in the foothills above San Bernardino in October 2003 that burned 91,000 acres and torched 1,000 buildings over nine days.
Prosecutors charged Fowler with the murders of five men, ranging in age from 54 to 93, who died from heart attacks after their homes burned to the ground or as they rushed to evacuate. Fowler also was convicted of two counts of arson, along with special circumstances that make him eligible for the death penalty.
That phase of the proceedings is scheduled to begin Monday.
Fowler became a suspect when witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. Investigators acting on a tip interviewed Fowler several months later but didn't have enough evidence to file charges until six years after the fire, when Fowler was in jail on a burglary conviction.
The charges against Fowler signaled a tough new standard for arson cases in a region plagued by wildfires that sometimes claim the lives of firefighters and civilians. Prosecutors declined to discuss the reasons for pursuing murder charges except to say if someone is killed during a felony, a person involved in that crime would be responsible for the death.