A woman who had been charged with the murders of 10 people, including two pregnant women, who died in a 1993 arson fire at an apartment building in the Westlake area of Los Angeles pleaded guilty Tuesday to two counts of voluntary manslaughter.
Johanna Lopez, 54, is facing 22 years in state prison in connection with her plea, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
She is set to be sentenced June 19 along with co-defendant Joseph Alberto Monge, 44, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to one count of voluntary manslaughter and admitted a gang allegation. Monge is facing 11 years in state prison, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
A third defendant, Ramiro Alberto Valerio, is still awaiting trial on 10 counts of murder and two counts of murder of a human fetus, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
The murder charges include the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder in the commission of an arson, along with gang allegations. Valerio, 46, could face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted as charged since prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty.
Authorities said in 2017 that they believed the fire was set in retaliation because a building manager was trying to crack down on drug-dealing at the 69-unit complex in the 300 block of West Burlington Avenue.
At a hearing in which the three defendants were ordered to stand trial, Los Angeles County Deputy Medical Examiner Christopher Rogers testified that autopsies determined that eight of the victims died from smoke inhalation and that the unborn fetus of one of the women died as a result of maternal smoke inhalation.
“The main problem with smoke is it has a lot of carbon monoxide,” Rogers said, noting that “you would need only a few breaths to die.”
The deputy medical examiner testified that eight of the victims — 2-year-old Lancy Mateo, 3-year-old Jose Camargo, 4-year-old Jesus Camargo, 6-year-old William Verdugo, 7-year-old Rosia Camargo, 8-year-old Yadira Verdugo, 10-year-old Leyver Verdugo and 29-year-old Alejandrina Roblero — had dark markings on their bodies or clothes that were consistent with soot.
Rogers said he reviewed autopsies performed on those eight victims by a deputy medical examiner who has since died and agreed with the original determination that they had died from “inhalation of products of combustion.”
Rosalia Ruiz’s unborn fetus weighed 8 pounds and died as a result of maternal smoke inhalation, said Rogers, who performed that autopsy.
Ruiz, 21, and Olga Leon, who was also pregnant, were also killed in the blaze.
More than 40 people were injured, and more than 100 residents were displaced, authorities said.
In February 2017, Valerio’s sister, Dana Gates, told reporters, “My brother is innocent. He would not do this. He would not commit a crime like this.”
She called it a “classic case of retaliation” by the Los Angeles Police Department, telling reporters that her family successfully sued the LAPD over the September 1992 shooting death of one of her brothers, Ismael David Valerio.
Valerio, a Palmdale resident, and Monge, who is from Montebello, have remained jailed without bail since their arrests in February.
Lopez was charged in 2011 with murder in connection with the fire, and murder charges were subsequently refiled against her after the initial case was dismissed.
Los Angeles police declined in 2017 to name a fourth suspect who was “out of the jurisdiction.”
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