Prosecutors plan to file 12 counts of capital murder Tuesday against three people accused of involvement in a 1993 fire at a Westlake apartment building, where 10 people perished, including seven children and three adults -- two of them pregnant women.
Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck told reporters on Monday that detectives "just would not let this case go," calling it "the most horrific case of arson in the city of Los Angeles history."
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.
A fourth suspect, who police declined to name, is "out of the jurisdiction," and the LAPD is coordinating with other agencies to make an arrest, Beck said.
The suspects' 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, Beck said. The gang retaliated by intentionally setting the fire, police and prosecutors said.
Robbery-homicide investigators have been following leads for years and have known for nearly five years that Valerio and Monge were allegedly involved, according to LAPD Capt. William Hayes.
The key to making a case stick, police said, was finding witnesses willing to testify against suspects like Valerio, who was the alleged shot caller for the Columbia Lil Cycos faction of the powerful 18th Street 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."
District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the gang had a stranglehold on the neighborhood at the time of the fire, but witnesses who were previously too frightened to cooperate have since come forward. "In most cases, time can hinder a prosecution ... In this case, time was on our side," Lacey said, telling reporters that the mass murder has "weighed on the minds of prosecutors for the last 24 years."
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.
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 Lopez 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 in lieu of $25 million bail. Bail was set at $2 million for Monge, who is from Montebello, according to Beck.
Special circumstances allegations to be filed 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 waystation 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.