USFS Arson Investigator Suspected of Setting Fires

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USFS Arson Investigator Suspected of Setting Fires

Postby Todd » Tue Dec 02, 2008 3:51 am

Arson Investigator Suspected of Setting Fires


November 23, 2008

RIVERSIDE -- An arson investigator for the U.S. Forest Service may be responsible for dozens of suspicious fires in Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.

Michael Karl McNeil is currently in jail for allegedly threatening public officials.

An investigative report, written by a Forest Service special agent, says the former USFS fire technician was suspiciously near numerous arson-caused fires in the Beaumont area after he moved there.

The report said McNeil had used matchstick starter devices similar to the one that triggered last year's Esperanza Fire, which killed five firefighters near Idyllwild. But McNeil is not charged in that case or any other arson.

Raymond Lee Oyler is on trial and could receive the death penalty for the Esperanza Fire. The secret USFS report says DNA from Oyler -- not McNeil -- was found on the device that started the Esperanza Fire.

Prosecutors in that case do not believe McNeil is the arsonist in the Esperanza Fire.

But Oyler's attorney told the Press-Enterprise that the Forest Service's suspicions about its own arson investigator, coupled with evidence that McNeil had a poor employment record and previously-unknown criminal record, cast doubt on the 45 murder and arson cases against Oyler.

The USFS investigation says McNeil has a criminal record for making threats against co-workers in 1998, and is in a Los Angeles County jail on charges that include threatening several public officials, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs.

The confidential report, written in July 2008, says McNeil "may possibly be associated" with at least four fires that match dates and circumstances of blazes that Oyler is charged with setting during 2006 in the San Gorgonio Pass, at the same time and place where Oyler is accused of setting fires.

The report also says McNeil is possibly associated with as many as 20 fires near Beaumont, from May 16 to Oct. 22 2006.

Oyler's defense attorney said McNeil's background and the Forest Service's 2006 investigation of him put key parts of the case against Oyler in doubt.

The Esperanza Fire started on Oct. 26, 2006, destroyed 39 homes and burned 43,000 acres in and above the San Gorgonio Pass. The five-man crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57 were overcome by a firestorm as they tried to protect a vacant home above Cabazon.

The next hearing in the Oyler case is Dec. 5.

The report notes McNeil has a checkered record with different fire agencies and that increases in arson fires in those areas coincide with his employment in those areas.

During his assignment there, Forest Service officials began connecting dots that increased suspicions about McNeil, his background, his claims of experience as an arson investigator, and the coincidence of his arrival and the increase of arson fires.

Other officers reported that McNeil often was the first person to arrive at arsons, often beating the nearest fire trucks to the crimes.

"Nothing is easier than spending public money. It does not appear to belong to anybody. The temptation is overwhelming to bestow it on somebody." Calvin Coolidge
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