Fowler implicates self
SAN BERNARDINO - The county's most destructive wildfire, the 2003 Old Fire, may have been started by a group of men who were too drunk and stoned to pull off a robbery.
Suspected arsonist Rickie Lee Fowler told Sheriff's detectives that he was in a van with three other men in the Old Waterman Canyon area. Fowler wanted to rob a man he saw as his godfather, John Aylward, who lived on Forest Lane.
"Once they got there, they realized they were too drunk and/or high to pull off a robbery. So they drove about halfway down the Waterman Canyon Road, where they parked and continued to get high," Sgt. Frank Bell testified before the San Bernardino County Grand Jury.
Fowler then told investigators that he was in the front passenger seat, and he remembered Martin Valdez Sr., and his son Martin Valdez Jr., got out and went to the back of the van. Fowler said he saw them strike a flare and throw it into the brush.
But when detectives later listened to the recording of their interview with Fowler, they realized their suspect had also slipped when they asked Fowler how the fire was lit.
"He said he remembered because he remembers striking the flare," Bell said of Fowler. "And then he corrected himself and said, `I remember them striking the flare."'
Bell's testimony was given during hearings in October before the San Bernardino County Grand Jury. The hearings lead to Fowler's indictment Oct. 8 on arson charges and five counts of murder related to the deaths of five men who suffered stress- related heart attacks during the blaze.
A sixth person died when he fell from a bridge in Sawpit Canyon while trying to hike back to his mountain home, around law enforcement barricades.
Fowler is also charged with special circumstances, which make the case eligible for the death penalty. However, prosecutors have not yet announced whether they plan to seek it.
Fire investigators determined the fire was caused by a flare thrown into the brush from Old Waterman Canyon Road. In none of his interviews did Fowler admit throwing the flare, claiming instead that one of his companions threw the flare.
Despite Fowler's admission to fire investigators about having a role in the massive wildfire, he has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Transcripts of the grand jury hearing were ordered released Tuesday by Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith.
Fowler's lawyer, Donald Jordan, argued against the release of the 600-page, two-volume transcripts, saying they could be prejudicial to his client and impact his ability to get a fair trial.
But after hearing Jordan's arguments in chambers, Smith said much of the defense lawyer's concern about information in the transcripts had already been reported in the press. Except for nine lines of Bell's testimony on page 446, which the judge ordered excised from the now public document.
Prosecutors did not challenge the release of the transcripts and said they should be able to find people who have not been exposed to too much publicity.
"We have a pretty wide jury pool," said Deputy District Attorney Vic Stull, who is prosecuting the case.
The Old Fire ignited on Oct. 25, 2003, near Old Waterman Canyon Road and burned for nine days, blackening more than 91,000 acres, burning nearly 1,000 homes and causing $170 million in property losses, according to the District Attorney's Office.
Millions more were spent fighting the blaze. About 70,000 people were evacuated from Del Rosa to Cedar Glen.
More than 4,000 firefighters battled the blaze at its peak and protected $7.5 billion in residential and commercial infrastructure, despite the severe losses.
Gabriel Padilla, who worked for a Redlands-based tree service, had stopped his overheating truck on Highway 18 on Oct. 25, 2003 and he spotted a white or gray van stop on Old Waterman Canyon Road.
A person got out of the van and made a throwing movement, Padilla testified. Immediately after, a fire started.
"He like threw something," Padilla told the grand jury. "He walked and then he threw something, like something that was lit."
The man who threw the object then ran back to the van and got into the front passenger side door, Padilla said. The van left quickly, headed down toward San Bernardino.
But as the van turned onto Highway 18, it ran a stop sign and nearly collided with a Chevrolet Blazer driven by Robert Lansden, who was traveling to the mountains with his wife.
Investigators began to suspect Fowler after tipsters reported he had made comments implicating himself in the blaze. Prosecutors said Fowler's interviews with detectives were relaxed and non- threatening.
"These aren't interviews where they're thwarting him with cigarettes or threatening him with a gun," Stull told the grand jury.
Fowler told investigators he was upset with Aylward, who isn't his godfather but was someone who showed kindness to his mother and brother, because he had kicked Fowler out of his house, according to the transcript.
Fowler said they wanted to rob Aylward, but Martin Valdez Sr. and another man, identified as "Dean," got scared. When the robbery didn't happen, Fowler suggested burning Aylward out of his house.
"Just animosity, too much anger," Fowler told investigators. He was hurt and upset at Aylward, he said.
Aylward told grand jurors that his relationship with Fowler started off friendly but then became contentious.
"He had difficulty with the understanding that I didn't want him there because he had a drug habit," Aylward testified. "And he found it difficult to accept that."
Aylward said Fowler once took a Rolex watch from him.
Valdez Sr. testified before the grand jury that he and his son were living in a trailer in Muscoy at the time of the fire in 2003.
The elder Valdez denied he was ever in Waterman Canyon at the time of the fire and said he was not in the van with Fowler. At one point, Valdez Sr. said he couldn't even clearly recall a fire during that time.
"I mean, like I say, I don't know the date of the fire, so I don't know if the fire was on when I was living there," Valdez Sr. testified. "I don't recall any fire."
In a later interview, Fowler said he took the flare out of the van, but he claimed Valdez Jr. took the flare from him, struck it and threw it.
Valdez Jr., 24, was interviewed about his alleged involvement in the Old Fire but was not arrested or charged. He was shot and killed in Muscoy three years ago.
In a signed affidavit Fowler gave to investigators while in prison, he admitted playing a role in the Old Fire.
"I, Rickie Fowler, decided to inform those that I have chosen to confess to being present at the `Old Fire' in 2003," Stull read to the jurors. "And that it was my intent to light it but got beat to the punch by a friend of mine that was also there.
"I am doing this of my own free will," wrote Stull.
In a recent jailhouse interview with The Sun, Fowler denied starting the Old Fire and claimed he was tagging with a friend in San Bernardino when flames began racing through Old Waterman Canyon. He recalled seeing large plumes of smoke and ash raining down.
The said he confessed to U.S. Forest Service investigators because he was sick of being "badgered" while serving time in prison for burglary. Fowler refused to talk about Valdez, other than to acknowledge that he knew him.
Fowler has said he "isn't losing sleep over this" and understands the community's desire to hold an arsonist accountable. And while he admits to leading a life of crime, Fowler says arson is not in his nature.
He said he has joined several self-help groups in prison.
"I'm trying to learn why I am the way I am," Fowler said. "I want to better myself."
Prosecutors told the grand jury that Fowler's intent to burn Aylward's house combined with the evidence and Padilla's testimony makes his culpability clear.
"He intended to start a fire in order to damage or hurt John Aylward, his so-called godfather," Stull said. "Again, we don't have to prove that he intended to kill him. He just wanted to start a fire."
For Fowler to be convicted of the special circumstances, prosecutors have to prove that he personally started the fire.
Bell testified that no offers or deals have been offered to Fowler to resolve the case, nor had anyone from the District Attorney's Office even talked with Fowler.
Prosecutors also say no one else is being charged in connection with the Old Fire. The only evidence that points to anyone else in the case, such as Valdez Sr., Valdez Jr., or the fourth man allegedly in the van comes from Fowler, according to Stull.
That would make Fowler the key witness at any trials for the other individuals, and prosecutors don't believe he would be a credible enough witness to secure a conviction.
"We don't file cases unless we can obtain a conviction by a jury at a trial," said Stull.
Staff writer Stacia Glenn contributed to this report at the The SUN - Link