Two men and a woman pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 12 counts of capital murder stemming from the deaths of seven children and three adults, including two pregnant women, in a 1993 arson fire at a Westlake apartment building.
Authorities said they believe the fire was set in retaliation because a building manager was trying to crack down on drug-dealing at the property. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Hanasono ordered Ramiro Alberto Valerio, 43, Joseph Alberto Monge, 41, and Johanna Lopez, 51, to be held without bail pending their next appearance Feb. 15 at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse for a readiness conference.
The three are awaiting a hearing Feb. 21 to determine if there is enough evidence to require them to stand trial on 10 counts of murder and two counts of murder of a human fetus. The murder charges include the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder in the commission of an arson, making them eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors will decide later whether to seek death.
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The charges also include an allegation that the crime was "committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang."
Valerio, a Palmdale resident, and Monge, who is from Montebello, were arrested Friday. Lopez was charged in 2011 with murder in connection with the fire and was already in custody, authorities said. A fourth suspect, who police declined to name, is "out of the jurisdiction," and the LAPD is coordinating with other agencies to make an arrest, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said Monday.
The suspects' gang was "engaged in large-scale narcotics sales" at the apartment and when a new manager was hired in 1993, she "tried to do the right thing" and put an end to drug dealing on the property, Beck said. The gang retaliated by intentionally setting the fire, police and prosecutors said. Robbery-homicide investigators have been following leads for years and have known for nearly five years that Valerio and Monge were allegedly involved, according to LAPD Capt. William Hayes.
The key to making a case stick, police said, was finding witnesses willing to testify against suspects like Valerio, who was the alleged shot- caller for a notorious gang. The early 1990s were the "absolute zenith of violent crime in Los Angeles," Beck said. "In that kind of atmosphere, witnesses don't come forward."
District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the gang had a stranglehold on the neighborhood at the time of the fire, but witnesses who were previously too frightened to cooperate have since come forward.
"In most cases, time can hinder a prosecution ... In this case, time was on our side," Lacey said, telling reporters that the mass murder has "weighed on the minds of prosecutors for the last 24 years."
Two pregnant women were trapped on the third floor of the 69-unit building at 330 S. Burlington Ave. and unable to save themselves or their children, Lacey said. More than 100 residents were displaced, and more than 40 were injured. The seven children who died ranged in age from 15 months to 11 years. Lopez was first charged with murder related to the fire in 2011 and murder charges were refiled against her Tuesday after the initial case was dismissed. Lacey and her team declined to say whether Lopez was expected to testify at trial.
Lopez has been held without bail since 2011 and is subject to an immigration hold, according to records on the Sheriff's Department website. In 1993, the building was a waystation for immigrants, some of whom lived a dozen or more to an apartment to stretch their incomes from low-wage jobs. The fire's rapid spread was aided by the crowded conditions, with personal belongings and furniture crammed into small spaces, fire officials said at the time.
After two suspicious fires on the premises the previous month, inspectors had noted that fire doors were propped open and alarms were not functioning properly. They required the owner to conduct fire patrols every half-hour. But the patrols never happened, and the fire doors were still open during the deadly blaze. The tragedy prompted widespread calls for improvements in city fire inspections.