Witnesses willing to come forward after more than two decades provided authorities with what they needed to make arrests in an arson case that haunted a community for nearly 25 years.
The witnesses, initially fearful of gang retribution, offered key evidence in the 1993 Westlake District apartment building fire that killed seven children and three women, two of whom were pregnant, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said at a Monday news conference. The suspects were identified as Ramiro Alberto Valerio, 43, Joseph Alberto Monge, 41, and Johanna Lopez, 51.
Lacey said Monday that her office plans to file capital murder charges against Valerio and Monge, who were arrested Friday. Lopez, charged in 2011 with murder in the arson, was already in custody on related charges. The murder charge will be re-filed against Lopez, Lacey said.
"The tragic deaths... weighed on the minds of prosecutors," Lacey said. "It is a crime that resonates with every parent. These mothers were trapped on the third floor of the apartment building and, sadly, could not save themselves or the lives of their young children."
The charges, 12 capital murder counts, are expected to be filed Tuesday, Lacey added.
A fourth suspect, who police declined to name, is out of LAPD jurisdiction, according to the police chief. The LAPD was coordinating with other agencies to make an arrest, he said.
The three-story building in the Westlake district caught fire on May 3, 1993. The residents, most of them poor immigrants from Central America, tried to escape by jumping from windows or balconies or climbing down bedsheets.
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Two pregnant women were among those killed in what LAPD Chief Charlie Beck called the "most horrific case of arson" in Los Angeles history. The case haunted his department for two decades, Beck said.
Police long suspected the fire was set by gang members who'd been kicked off the property for drug dealing. The suspects were angry because the apartment manager had ordered them to take their drug dealing elsewhere, Beck said.
"The criminal street gang in the neighborhood was engaged in large-scale narcotics sales," Beck said. "The manager tried to do the right thing and stop the narcotics sales. We believe these horrible murders were done to facilitate the narcotics operation."
Charges were filed earlier in the case, but dropped due to lack of evidence. Witnesses in the neighborhood worried about retribution by the gang did not want to speak with investigators until recently, Lacey said.
"In most cases, time can hinder a prosecution," Lacey said. "But in this case, time was actually on our side. Witnesses who were living in fear, initially, were not willing to cooperate. I'm very grateful to those witnesses.
"This case is a reminder of what it was like to live in Los Angeles in the 1990s, when drug-fueled violence was at its height."
Authorities did not provide details about the information that led to the arrests.