D.A. files murder charges in 1993 Westlake apartment complex fire that left 10 dead

Prosecutors filed murder charges Tuesday against three people suspected of setting one of the deadliest arson fires in Los Angeles history, an apartment blaze that killed 10 people in 1993.

Johanna Lopez, 51, Ramiro “Greedy” Valerio, 43, and Joseph “Droopy” Monge, 41, were each charged with 12 counts of capital murder, according to the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. 

On Monday, Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said Lopez, Valerio and Monge were responsible for a May 1993 blaze at the Burlington Apartment complex in Westlake. Lacey said the fire was set as payback after a vigilant apartment manager took steps to discourage drug dealing inside the building.

Lopez, who was paying the notorious 18th Street Gang for the right to distribute crack cocaine in the neighborhood, enlisted Valerio and another gang member in a plot to set fire to the building after growing frustrated with the manager’s interference, according to a transcript of testimony by an L.A. Police Department detective during a 2011 preliminary hearing.

Valerio was a known shot caller within the 18th Street Gang, which terrorized the Westlake community and dominated drug trade in the area during the 1990s.

Prosecutors said in a news release Tuesday that the manager was moving furniture into her second-floor apartment when a mattress was set ablaze in the hallway. Prosecutors did not say which defendant or defendants is believed to have actually set the fire. 

The fire tore through the building, which was largely populated by immigrants from Mexico and Central America, spreading quickly in part due to faulty smoke detectors and fire doors. Ten people died, including seven children and two pregnant women.

Valerio and Monge were arrested last week by Los Angeles police. Lopez has been in custody on charges related to the fire since 2011, according to court records. The previous case against her was dismissed Tuesday morning, and she is now set to be tried alongside the other defendants, prosecutors said.

A fourth suspect remains at large and may have fled the country, police said Monday. 

All three defendants were set to be arraigned Tuesday and are currently being held without bail, according to the district attorney’s office.

Lopez’s attorney, Bob Horner, said Tuesday that his client has repeatedly denied any involvement in the fatal fire. He also questioned the veracity of testimony given by retired LAPD Det. Olivia Spindola at Lopez’s preliminary hearing in August of 2011.

Horner claimed that Spindola interviewed Lopez several times without an attorney present. The former detective stitched together her testimony from conversations held over several years while Lopez was in federal prison because of a 2000 racketeering conviction, he asserted. 

“I think the testimony she repeated was her own words,” Horner said.

The LAPD and the district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding Horner’s claims.

Horner also criticized prosecutors for waiting more than five years to bring Lopez to trial. Though she was arrested in connection with the fire in 2011, her trial was not scheduled to begin until Feb. 14, court records show.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus, who has presided over the case in recent years, said Tuesday morning that the trial was delayed by repeated requests for continuances from both prosecutors and Horner. 

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said prosecutors also took more than two years to decide whether to seek the death penalty for Lopez, ultimately declining to pursue capital punishment in December 2013.

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