LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Three people with alleged ties to a notorious gang have been arrested in what prosecutors called the deadliest arson in California history, the intentionally set 1993 fire at a Los Angeles apartment building that killed 12 people, including two unborn babies.
An unnamed fourth suspect wanted in connection with the nearly quarter-century old case has fled the country, authorities said at a press conference on Monday, and remains a fugitive.
“This is a crime that resonates with every parent and really every human being,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said at a press conference.
Ramiro Valerio, 43, and Joseph Monge, 41, were taken into custody on Friday and were each expected to face 12 counts of murder with special circumstances that could make them eligible for the death penalty, Lacey said.
Johanna Lopez, 51, was arrested in 2011 and was awaiting trial in the case and will be re-arrested on charges of murder with special circumstances.
Valerio’s attorney, Gregory Rubel, said that his client was “not involved” in the fire and would ultimately be cleared of the charges.
“He’s been arrested six times in the last 24 years and each time he’s been released. The same thing is going to happen in this case,” he said.
Rubel said that other suspects were arrested in connection with the arson in the late 1990s but that charges were ultimately dismissed against them.
“It’s a horrible case but at same time they’ve never been able to prosecute it,” he said.
Authorities say witnesses who had been too afraid of the powerful 18th Street gang to give evidence in 1993 were now more willing to testify.
Lacey said prosecutors believe the blaze in the city’s Westlake neighborhood was started by members of the gang in May of 1993 to intimidate the apartment manager and others who sought to drive drug dealers from the property.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the blaze broke out on the second floor of the building, which housed mostly central American immigrants, spreading quickly because at least several fire doors had been propped or nailed open.
The paper said that as flames raced through the building mothers were seen throwing their babies out of windows in hopes of saving them as other residents formed human chains to save those trapped on upper floors.
Among the victims who perished were seven children and three adults, two of them women in late-term pregnancy.
Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Bernard Orr