SAN BERNARDINO - The long journey has ended. At least for members of the Robert Taylor family.

"It's finally over," said Jesse Taylor, the middle child of San Bernardino carpenter Robert Taylor, who at age 54, died of a heart attack about a week after his own house was destroyed by the Old Fire.

On Tuesday, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael Smith upheld a jury's death sentence for Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, who was found guilty on five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson in the 2003 Old Fire.

The fire, which began on Oct. 25, 2003, burned more than 91,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures after starting in Waterman Canyon in the foothills above San Bernardino.

"Actually, I'm kind of glad he got the death sentence. That means he won't be out hurting any more people," Jesse Taylor said in an interview outside Smith's courtroom Tuesday.

Prior to ruling on Fowler's fate, Smith reviewed his criminal record before and after his arrest, which included both domestic violence and assaults against other prisoners.

Prosecutors said five residents in the burn areas died from heart attacks caused by the stress of evacuation and the threats to their homes and belongings.

The other four deceased men were Charles Cunningham, James McDermith, Chad Williams and Ralph McWilliams.


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Robert Taylor was working on a client's house in Orange County when his oldest daughter, Trisha Webster, called him on his cell phone to let him know the fire was rapidly heading for the family home.

One bedroom of the house was already engulfed in flames when Robert Taylor arrived, said Jesse Taylor, 32, of San Bernardino.

"He got out a few files and that was about it," Jesse Taylor said Tuesday morning after Judge Smith's ruling.

Webster, 40, who now lives in Las Vegas, Jesse Taylor and Ashley Taylor, 25, who lives in Yucaipa, read victim impact statements in the courtroom Tuesday.

"It was hard for me. It really turned my life around," Ashley Taylor said as part of the statement she read in court.

She was 16 when her father died.

Ashley Taylor told the judge and others in the courtroom that she shows pictures of her father to her two young daughters, who will never know him.

"It was hard after so many years of putting the pain away to go up there and read that statement," Ashley Taylor said.

Robert Taylor had recently built and installed about $10,000 worth of kitchen cabinets in the family house and lost many of the tools he needed for his construction business, Trisha Webster said in an interview.

Family members helped him "scrounge up" some of the lost tools so he could resume work a few days after the fire, Webster said.

"He just kept going down every day," Webster said, explaining that worries about the destroyed house, insurance payments, his lost tools "and many, many family possessions that could never, never be brought back," consumed him."

Robert Taylor became withdrawn, started shaking, wasn't eating and was sick to his stomach, Webster said.

On the morning of Nov. 1, 2003, he had a heart attack and died shortly after arriving an area hospital, she said.

jim.steinberg@inlandnewspapers.com