Arson, Heart Attacks, and the Manner of Death

09 Sep

Back in May, I discussed the issue of Cause and Manner of death and the two killers who went to trial for murder when their victim died 30 years after the initial attack. The victim died from “natural causes” but the cascade of events that led to his death began with the assault by the two defendants.

In a slightly different situation, but one that weighs equally on the manner of death, Rickie Fowler has been convicted of the murder of five people who died from fatal heart attacks. But aren’t heart attacks natural events? How could he be guilty of murder?


Back in 2003 in San Bernardino County, CA, dear old Rickie decided to set the countryside ablaze by driving around the drought-dried hillsides and tossing flaming objects out the window of his vehicle. Here in California we deal with these morons every fire season. The result of Rickie’s little spree was a nine-day fire that consumed 91,000 acres, more than 1000 buildings, and the five heart attack victims, who suffered their fatal events while trying to escape the flames.


Sure heart attacks are natural, but the inciting event in the death of each was their fear, anxiety, stress, and physical activity as they rushed away from the conflagration. If not for the fire, the heart attacks would not likely have occurred. At least not on that day. A jury agreed and convicted Rickie on all five counts.


Posted by on September 9, 2012 in Uncategorized


4 responses to “Arson, Heart Attacks, and the Manner of Death

  1. nylne

    September 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I would like to follow the articles about this case. As an inspiring author I appreciate your blog.


  2. Brenda

    September 9, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I’ve always wondered why prosecutors didn’t prosecute this type of case. Sorry they had the horrid perp that made them need to do so but glad these prosecutors went after this guy for these deaths.


  3. Frank Karl

    September 12, 2012 at 5:17 am

    Don’t you find this to be a classic slippery slope argument?

    While I’m overjoyed that an arsonist was caught and reserves all the punishment possible, doesn’t charging him with murder seem wrong?

    I can see the connection between a shooter and his injured victim who dies years later because of the injuries caused by the original gun injuries. There seem to be a clearer, direct relationship.

    But murder by worry?

    A company I worked for laid off several employees quite unexpectantly. One of the older men had a heart attack in the lobby as they were exiting the building. He survived that attack but what if…. What if he succumbed to a heart attack a year later?

    Could his estate demand the company be held responsible? After all the company did him harm by firing a 56 year old employee with 35 years experience. The stress of having to find a job, a job that paid as well, losing all those benefits (6 weeks of paid vacation gone in a heart beat!) and having his entire retirement plan affecting both is wife and himself sounds like excessive harm to me.

    Still, what a motive for an avenging killer determined to “right” the wrongs suffered by a relative.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      September 12, 2012 at 8:42 am

      Yes it can be a slippery slope and cases like this have been a source of controversy for many years. The guiding principle seems to be that if a criminal act began the “cascade of events” that ultimately led to death then the case could be filed as a murder. In this case the criminal act of arson led to the deaths of these people. Would they have died soon anyway? Maybe. But a major inciting event for a heart attack or deadly cardiac arrhythmia is stress, both physical and emotional, and I imagine these folks had both physical and emotional stress.



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