State & Region briefly
Sudden lane change caused bus crash
RENO (AP) – Investigators have concluded a sudden lane change caused the deadly crash of a mountain resort’s shuttle bus in the Sierra Nevada in April but prosecutors haven’t decided whether to file criminal charges against the 66-year-old driver.
The bus, operated by the Resort at Squaw Creek just north of Lake Tahoe, veered off Interstate 80 near the Nevada-California line on April 4.
It struck a guardrail and rolled at least once before stopping in a ditch about 20 miles west of Reno, killing two passengers and injuring two dozen others, including the driver.
California Highway Patrol officer Steve Skeen said investigators determined an unsafe turning movement, such as a sudden lane change, caused the accident. He said they don’t know why the driver made the move.
The driver, whose name has not been released, was interviewed by a CHP investigator the day of the accident but provided few details because he was on pain medication for a head injury, Skeen said.
“Shortly after this incident, the driver was in a coma himself,” said Bill Cornell, district attorney for California’s Nevada County. Because of that, he said it likely will be weeks before he decides whether to file criminal charges.
Counterfeit check lab shutdown in Reno
RENO (AP) – Police have shut down a check forgery laboratory at a home in Reno and arrested a man they accuse of passing at least $10,000 worth of counterfeit checks at area casinos and businesses over the past month.
Sgt. Scott Dugan says Robert Alvira III faces felony charges of establishing a financial forgery laboratory and being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm.
He says the counterfeit checks were presented as payroll checks from Opinion Research Corp., a legitimate Reno company.
The Reno SWAT team assisted in the bust at Alvira’s home Thursday morning at 702 Robinhood Drive. Alvira was arrested in the area Thursday night.
It’s the fifth such lab shut down in the Reno area in a month.
Underground blast in San Francisco cuts power
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – An underground explosion in downtown San Francisco on Friday sent black smoke pouring out of a manhole and cut power to 8,600 people. There were no reports of injuries.
As of 9 p.m. Friday, about 2,000 customers remained without power, said Pacific Gas and Electric spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian. She said the majority of those customers should have their power back by sunrise Saturday.
The blast occurred around 11:30 a.m, Sarkissian said. Police cordoned off a two-block area, and firefighters sprayed foam into the manhole.
Sarkissian said the cause of the blast is not yet known. PG&E crews are still waiting for the temperature in the vault to drop before they enter.
“There was 75 gallons of oil down there, (which) is like a coolant for the transformers, that’s what produced the black smoke,” said Mindy Talmadge, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Fire Department.
Authorities advised people in the area to stay inside for several hours. Residents complained of the horrible smell, and some left the area despite advice to stay put.
Calif. man gets death sentence in 5 arson murders
RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) – In the pre-dawn darkness, the flames ignited by an arsonist were taller than a seven-story building and hot enough to turn solid metal to liquid.
Four young San Bernadino National Forest firefighters and their engine chief raced to the top of a remote hillside high in the San Jacinto Mountains and took positions at an unoccupied house, as winds of 40 mph swirled the fire around them.
Minutes later, three were dead, overrun by a blaze so intense that a prosecutor would later say it rolled like water over the hillside. Another firefighter died that day at a hospital, and another several days later.
Raymond Lee Oyler, captured the day the last firefighter died, was a serial arsonist bent on destruction, “a man wanting to be so important he unleashed disaster on five men,” a prosecutor said at his trial.
On Friday, a judge sentenced the 38-year-old former auto mechanic to death for murdering the five men: Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, and Pablo Cerda, 23.
Fire officials believe it is the first death sentence ordered in the United States for an arson wildfire involving the deaths of firefighters.
Relatives of the victims addressed the court during the sentencing hearing.
“The damage done to our family can never be repaired,” said Josh McLean, brother of Jess McLean. “He stole something from us that he cannot repay. To sit in the courtroom and watch the defendant smile and wave to his family, that’s something that we no longer have the opportunity to do.”
Gloria Ayala, the mother of Hoover-Najera, said she struggles with her son’s death but has forgiven Oyler. She said she also blames Oyler for hurting his own family.
“Every day I wake up and every day I think about Danny. His room is still the same, everything is the same. I shut the door the day he died and I walk in there every once in a while, I sleep in his bed every once in a while,” she said outside court after the sentencing.
Oyler was also convicted of 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device for a rash of blazes in the area that year.
Testimony at trial gave a glimpse into Oyler’s purported motives. A girlfriend testified that he told her he was setting fires to regain custody of a child, hoping relatives who had custody would be blamed.
Days before the blaze, he spoke to his second cousin of setting the mountain on fire to free his dog, which had been impounded at a local animal shelter.
But at the end of the day, prosecutors said the explanation was more sordid: Oyler derived pleasure and a sense of power from watching the fires he had created.
One of Oyler’s daughters, Heather, 22, said she believes her father is innocent. She wept when the sentence was pronounced and clutched her boyfriend.
“My dad is not a bad guy. He’s not bad at all,” she said after the hearing. “He loves us and he wishes we didn’t have to go through this.”
Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin said outside court that Oyler would be taken immediately to San Quentin State Prison.
The fatal blaze began on a hillside in the town of Cabazon and spread quickly from a valley floor up the north side of the mountains to the widely dispersed rural community of Twin Pines.
There, the fire overran the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57. The blaze, known as the Esperanza Fire, also destroyed 34 homes and 20 outbuildings and charred nearly 70 square miles of terrain.
Witnesses testified during the trial that footprints and a trail of dropped gear at the scene indicate that at least one firefighter tried to run from the flames and fled for about 30 seconds before he was overcome.
Defense attorney Mark McDonald said that the sentencing decision had been expected.
Asked how Oyler has reacted, McDonald said, “He’s been fine with this whole thing since he got over the initial verdict.”
McDonald said he felt Oyler had a strong appeals case, particularly because an unidentified person placed news articles about an alternative suspect on the windshields of each juror’s car during deliberations.
At the time, the judge questioned the jurors individually about the incident and let the case proceed.
Oyler’s brother, Jeff, 37, said his brother has been on medication for depression.
“We feel just the like the firefighters’ families feel,” Jeff Oyler said. “My heart goes out to them also, you know.”