A judge's gavel. Photo from Pixabay.
A judge’s gavel. Photo from Pixabay.

A state appeals court panel Friday upheld a transient’s murder conviction for intentionally setting a fire that killed five people in a vacant Westlake district commercial building where a group of other homeless people were living.

The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the defense’s contention that there were errors in Johnny Josue Sanchez’s trial.

He was convicted of first-degree murder for the June 13, 2016, deaths of De Andre Mitchell, 34; Jerry Dean Clemons, 59; Mary Ann Davis, 44; Joseph Proenneke, 25, and Tierra Stansberry, 18.

The panel also found true special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during the commission of an arson and convicted Sanchez of two counts of attempted murder involving two people who were rescued from the burning building near MacArthur Park.

Sanchez intentionally set the blaze because he had been involved in a dispute with another transient in the vacant building at 2411 W. Eighth St., authorities said.

Firefighters used a ladder to rescue people from second-story windows in the burning building, and it took three hours to put out the blaze. One man was initially declared dead as a result of the fire, and cadaver dogs and their handlers discovered the bodies of four more people “huddled up” in the ruins of the two-story structure the next day, Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigator Lance Jimenez said at a March 2018 hearing in which Sanchez was ordered to stand trial.

A medical examiner testified that four of the victims suffered burns that contributed to their deaths, while Stansberry died of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation, according to the appellate court panel’s ruling.

At Sanchez’s trial, the arson investigator testified that he believed two separate fires were intentionally set at the same time, the justices noted.

A woman who lived in an apartment across the alley from the building spotted the building on fire and saw Sanchez running back and forth and screaming, “There’s somebody I don’t like. I hope he burns. I hope he dies,” according to the ruling, which noted that the woman told a 911 operator that Sanchez said he had to kill everyone in the building.

Sanchez — who denied setting the fire when he was interviewed by investigators — was arrested by Los Angeles police that night and has remained jailed without bail since then.

He is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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