Two men and a woman were charged Tuesday in a deadly 1993 Westlake apartment fire that police said was deliberately set as retribution against a building manager who wanted to stop gang drug dealing at the complex.
The fire killed 10 people: seven children and three women, two of whom were pregnant.
Ramiro Valerio aka Greedy, 43, Joseph Monge aka Droopy, 41, and Johanna Lopez, 51, were each charged with 12 counts of special circumstances capital murder.
They entered not guilty pleas in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, where the judge ordered them held without bail. Lopez appeared to wipe away tears.
Authorities said in announcing the arrests on Monday that all three were associated with the 18th Street gang. But on Tuesday only Valerio and Monge were described as gang members by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which announced the charges.
The trio are eligible for the death penalty due to the special circumstances allegations of multiple murders, and murder in the commission of arson. Prosecutors will in future decide whether to seek the death penalty or life in prison, the DA’s office said.
The fire burned at an apartment complex in the 300 block of Burlington Avenue on May 3, 1993. It moved so quickly that women were seen throwing babies out of windows in hope their children would survive, the Los Angeles Times reported. District Attorney Jackie Lacey on Monday said the fire was the deadliest arson in California history.
Those killed died from smoke inhalation on the top floor, and dozens of others were injured. The crowded building was primarily occupied by immigrants from Central America.
The fire began as the building manager was moving furniture into her second-floor unit; her mattress in the hallway was set ablaze, the DA’s office said.
The victims were:
- Olga Leon, 24, and her three children, Rosia, 7, Jesus and Jose, both 4;
- Alejandrina Roblero, 29, and her three children, Leyver, 11, William and Yadira, both 6;
- Rosalia Ruiz, 21;
- and Lancy Mateo, 1.
Both Leon and Ruiz were pregnant.
Outside court, Valerio's sister, Dana Gates said her brother was innocent. She said her family had won a wrongful death lawsuit against LAPD for the death of another sibling, suggesting the prosecution was payback.
Lopez's attorney, Robert Horner, meanwhile, said that prosecutors claim the two male suspects set the fire to benefit his client. Horner said the DA's office alleges Lopez was a cocaine dealer at the time of the fire.
The investigation was reopened in 2013, when the Los Angeles Police Department’s elite Robbery-Homicide Division began working with Assistant District Attorney Joseph Esposito, the prosecutor who had worked on the original case.
Lopez was charged with murder in the fire in 2011; she was in custody when she was charged Tuesday. Valerio and Monge were arrested Feb. 3.
New evidence that police have not described led to the charges. Police also said that with the passage of time, witnesses were no longer afraid of the gang's retribution and became willing to come forward.
LAPD said there is a fourth suspect who is still being sought. His name has not been released.
A preliminary hearing is set for Feb. 21; a readiness hearing is set for Feb. 15.