Prosecutors plan to file 12 counts of capital murder with special circumstance allegations Tuesday against three people arrested in connection with a 1993 fire at a Westlake apartment building that killed seven children and three adults, including two pregnant women, according to District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said detectives “just would not let this case go,” calling the alleged crime “the most horrific case of arson in the city of Los Angeles history,” during a news conference with Lacey at police headquarters.
Alleged gang members Ramiro Alberto Valerio, 43, and Joseph Alberto Monge, 41, were arrested Friday and Johanna Lopez, 51, was charged in 2011 with murder related to the fire and was already in custody.
Robbery-homicide investigators have been following leads for years and have known for nearly five years that Valerio and Monge were involved, according to LAPD Capt. William Hayes.
The key to making a case stick was finding witnesses willing to testify against suspects like Valerio, who police said was the shot caller for the 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.”
The gang had a stranglehold on the neighborhood at the time of the fire, Lacey said, but witnesses were now willing to talk.
“In most cases, time can hinder a prosecution … in this case time was on our side,” Lacey told reporters.
A fourth suspect, who police declined to name, is “out of the jurisdiction,” according to the police chief, adding that the LAPD was coordinating with other agencies to make an arrest.
Beck said the 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.
The gang retaliated by intentionally setting the fire that took 12 lives, police and prosecutors said.
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.
The mass murder “weighed on the minds of prosecutors for the last 24 years,” the district attorney told reporters, adding that her office is “finally seeking justice.”
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 will be refiled against her. Lacey and her team declined to say whether she was expected to testify at trial or whether all the suspects would face identical charges.
Lopez has been held without bail since 2011 and is subject to an immigration hold, according to records on the Sheriff’s Department website.
Valerio, a Palmdale resident, is being held on $25 million bail. Bail was set at $2 million for Monge, who is from Montebello, according to Beck.
The special circumstances allegations against some or all of the three suspects are expected to include multiple murder and murder for financial gain, according to the District Attorney’s Office. Gang allegations are also expected.
Lacey’s office will decide later whether to seek the death penalty.
In 1993, the building was a way station 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 reform in city fire inspections.
—City News Service