LOS ANGELES (CN) – Two men and a woman face capital murder charges over a 1993 blaze that killed 10 people in a Westlake apartment building where vulnerable Central American immigrants lived, authorities said Tuesday.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said authorities on Friday arrested Ramiro Alberto Valerio, 43, of Palmdale and Joseph Alberto Monge, 41, of Montebello. A third individual, Johanna Lopez, was arrested in 2011 for her part in the arson. County prosecutors filed capital murder charges against all three defendants on Tuesday.
Beck said he expects the arrest of a fourth suspect in the “near future,” but declined to name him. Prosecutors will refile charges against Lopez.
“We believe this is the most horrific case of arson in the city of Los Angeles’ history. We have seen other fires that took multiple lives. This one was intentionally set and that makes it even more heinous,” Beck said.
The accused were linked to an 18th Street gang known as Columbia Lil Cycos. Prosecutors believe so-called “shot caller” Valerio, Monge and Lopez started the fire after the building manager kicked out drug dealers from the building on the 300 block of South Burlington in the LAPD’s Rampart Division, which operates in four neighborhoods west of downtown.
Valerio, also known as Greedy, has been held on a $25 million bond. Monge, also known as Droopy, is being held on a $2 million bond.
The May 3, 1993, fire in the 40-unit, three-story building was home to poor Central American immigrants. The fire started on the second floor of the building.
As the blaze tore through hallways, residents formed human chains. Others tied bedsheets together to lower themselves to safety. Some residents were forced to rescue their children from the blaze by dropping them from windows to people below.
One pregnant woman who was nearly full-term died from smoke inhalation. A Caesarean section rescued the child. Beck said three other unborn children perished in the fire along with seven children and three adults, including two pregnant women.
Beck said investigators took another look at the case in 2013, approaching witnesses and building a case that led to the Feb. 3 arrests. Capt. William Hayes told reporters that investigators had linked the two men to the crime at least five years ago.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said Valerio and Monge face 12 counts of capital murder with special circumstances each, and charges of murder in the commission of an arson or financial gain. She said her office will decide whether to pursue the death penalty after a preliminary hearing.
She said the blaze was started with the intent to intimidate the building manager and residents who wanted the dealers out. The manager had placed a mattress in the hallway as she was rearranging furniture in her apartment when the mattress was set on fire, the Lacey’s office said.
The victims died of smoke inhalation on the top floor of the building. Dozens of other people were injured.
Among the dead were pregnant mother Olga Leon, 24, her 7-year-old daughter Rosia and 4-year-old sons Jesus and Jose. Alejandrina Roblero, 29, and her three children, Leyver, 11 and 6-year-olds William and Yadira also perished as did 21-year-old Rosalia Ruiz, who was pregnant, and 1-year-old Lancy Mateo.
“This case is a reminder of what it was like to live in Los Angeles County in the early 1990s, when drug-fueled violence was at its height,” Lacey said.
The owner was cited for code violations after an earlier fire in two apartments, according to reports at the time of the fire. Inspectors determined smoke alarms had been disconnected and that fire doors were propped or nailed open, a hazard that would allow a blaze to spread more rapidly.
Beck noted that violent crimes was at their “zenith” in 1993. He said that there were 1,100 murders that year, including 150 murders in the Rampart Division.
“In that kind of atmosphere, witnesses don’t come forward,” Beck said.
Lacey and Beck declined to comment on what additional evidence led to the arrests, besides witness statements.
This is not the first time authorities have pressed charges in connection with the attack. Prosecutors charged gang members Rogelio Andrade and Allan Lobos, but dropped the charges in 1999, according to the Los Angeles Times.