Suspect in 2003 California Wildfire Recants Confession

November 30, 2009

A convicted burglar has claimed in jailhouse interviews that he was badgered into confessing to starting a 2003 wildfire that burned about 1,000 homes in the foothills above San Bernardino and allegedly caused five people to die of heart attacks.

“I’ve terrorized that city as much as anyone,” Rickie Lee Fowler said. “But I’ve never lit a fire and I’ve never killed anyone.”

Fowler, 28, of San Bernardino, was indicted by a grand jury last month. He has pleaded not guilty to five counts of murder and one count each of arson of an inhabited structure and aggravated arson. Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

In jailhouse interviews this month, Fowler told the Riverside Press-Enterprise and the San Bernardino Sun that he was in state prison several years ago, serving time for burglary, when investigators got him to acknowledge setting the so-called Old Fire.

“I did admit to it. But I did it so they’d stop pressuring me, badgering me,” Fowler told the Press-Enterprise from the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.

Fowler denied that he was the man who got out of a white van and tossed a lit road flare into dry brush to start the fire along Old Waterman Canyon Road on Oct. 25, 2003.

The nine-day blaze raged over more than 142 square miles of foothills.

“The community wants to crucify someone. They’re angry. I understand,” Fowler told the Sun. “I guess they’re looking for justice, but get the right person. I had nothing to do with it. I really didn’t.”

The suspected driver of the van, Martin Valdez Jr., was later shot and killed in an unrelated incident in the town of Muscoy.

Investigators contend Fowler was the van’s passenger and he set the fire in an attempt to burn down his godfather’s house because the man wouldn’t give him methamphetamine or money.

Fowler said he suspected Valdez might have played a role in starting the fire.

However, Fowler, an acknowledged graffiti vandal, said he was with another tagger in San Bernardino at the time.

“I saw the smoke and then the ashes came,” he told the Sun.

Less than two months later, he was arrested in a $720 robbery case, which was later reduced to burglary.

In 2004, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison on two burglary convictions.

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.