Two men and a woman were ordered to stand trial on capital murder charges involving the deaths of 10 people, including two pregnant women, in an arson fire at an apartment building in the Westlake area of Los Angeles in 1993.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar last Friday rejected the defense’s motion to dismiss the case against Ramiro Alberto Valerio, 44, Joseph Alberto Monge, 42, and Johanna Lopez, 52, who are charged with 10 counts of murder and two counts of murder of a human fetus.
The murder charges include the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder in the commission of an arson, along with allegations that the crime was “committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang.”
Prosecutors will decide later if they will seek the death penalty against the three, who are due back Nov. 3 in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom for arraignment.
Authorities said earlier this year they believed the fire was set in retaliation because a building manager was trying to crack down on drug-dealing at the 69-unit structure in the 300 block of West Burlington Avenue.
The prosecution presented a series of photos of some of the youngest victims, including an unborn baby as the hearing began last week.
The prosecution’s first witness, Los Angeles County Deputy Medical Examiner Christopher Rogers, testified that autopsies showed 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.
The prosecution used a large courtroom screen to display photos of the unborn baby, who had a full head of hair, along with photos of the other victims.
Valerio, Monge and Lopez are also charged with the deaths of Ruiz, 21, and Olga Leon, 24, who was also pregnant.
More than 40 people were injured, and more than 100 residents were displaced, authorities said.
Dozens of other people were injured, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
In February, 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 refiled against her in February after the initial case was dismissed.
Los Angeles police declined to name a fourth suspect who was “out of the jurisdiction.”