Criminal Law

Felony Murder to Apply in California Wildfires Case

In 2003 a fire erupted in the Waterman Canyon area of the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. The fire burned for 9 days, swept across 90,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,000 homes. It resulted in $45 million in damages and 5 people dying due to heart attacks and other health conditions brought on by the fire.

How Did the Fire Start?

Rickie Lee Fowler, a 28-year-old prison inmate is believed to have started the fire. Fowler was identified after a telephone tip and witnesses reported seeing someone in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. Some reports say he set the fire as revenge after a dispute with a man who lived near Old Waterman Canyon Road.

Only now, right before the statute of limitations expires, has Fowler been charged with arson and murder in connection with the 2003 fire. Prosecutors explained that they just now gathered enough evidence to charge him. Evidence obtained as recently as three weeks ago allowed them to identify Fowler as a suspect and a special criminal grand jury to indict him.

He was already in jail for robbing a 67-year-old woman of $720 cash, cutting her hand with a meat cleaver and stabbing her dog.

How Can an Arsonist Be Charged with Murder?

While Fowler may have set the fire intentionally, he didn't intend to kill anyone. However, he can be charged for the deaths resulting from the fire.

Arson is the crime of setting a fire with intent to cause damage. Arson is a felony, a serious offense, where a sentence of death or at least one year of jail may be imposed in California.

One type of murder is "felony murder" that includes the death of victims that are a result of a felony, even when the people die accidentally.

What's the Purpose of the Felony Murder Rule?

The felony murder charge holds criminals responsible for all of their violent actions, even when they didn't intend to kill anyone. As long as the state's lawyers can show there was a link between the fire being set and the deaths, the fatalities can be attached to the felony and the suspect can be charged with felony murder.

The individuals that Fowler is held responsible for are: James McDermith, 70; Charles Howard Cunningham, 93; retired fire captain Chad Leo Williams, 70; Robert Norman Taylor, 54; and Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67. While the victims didn't burn to death, they died as a result of heart attacks or by the stress of fighting or fleeing the fire.

Lisa McDermith, the daughter-in-law of one of the victims, said that her father-in-law had a heart attack while driving to pick up a trailer he planned to use to leave his home. "We're happy for this [ending], not only for us but for all the families who lost a family member and who lost homes," she said. "He [Fowler] caused a lot of grief to so many people. There will finally be some closure."1


1 AP, Murder, Arson Charged in 2003 California Wildfire, CBS News, October 21, 2009, available at, accessed December 28, 2009.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Someone may have died while I was robbing a convenience store. Am I liable for their death?
  • My brother died while trying to stop an assault in progress. Can the assaulter be charged with his death?
  • How close does the link between the crime and death have to be for the felony murder rule to apply?
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