LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com/AP) — Several arrests have been made in connection with an apartment building fire that killed seven children and three adults more than 20 years ago, authorities announced Monday.
Ramiro Valerio, 43, of Palmdale, and Joseph Monge, 41, of Montebello, were arrested Friday on suspicion of murder with special circumstances. Johanna Lopez, 51, will be arrested on the same charges Tuesday, Los Angeles police said. She is currently in custody on charges related to the fire.
Valerio is being held on $25 million bail and Monge is being held on $2 million bail.
Police say a fourth person, who has fled the country, is also wanted in connection with the case. His identity was withheld to avoid interfering efforts to capture him.
“It was a mass murder that required that we never give up,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said at a Monday news conference.
The deadly fire erupted on May 3, 1993, in a three-story apartment building located in the Westlake District. The incident is considered to be one of the worst arson fires in Los Angeles history.
“These cases are all about witnesses, they’re all about getting witnesses comfortable enough to testify,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said.
Investigators learned the fire was set as a warning to the building’s residents who were trying to stop the illegal sales of drugs. Lopez, Valerio and Monge were involved in the sales of drugs in and around the complex and were responsible for starting the fire, according to Los Angeles police.
At the time of the fire, the area around the apartment complex was ruled by gangs, and witnesses were afraid to talk, authorities said.
“People with age are realizing that they’re getting closer, and things that they want to come forward with that they wouldn’t have at that point in time,” LAPD. Capt. William Hayes.
There was no word on how many witnesses came forward or whether there was any physical evidence.
“Almost 1,100 murders occurred that year, over 150 of them in the Rampart district where this happened,” Beck said.
On Monday, a woman who witnessed the fire and helped rescue a family from the flames spoke to KCAL9 about her experience. The witness, who asked not to be identified, lived across from the Burlington Apartments and saw flames pouring out of the building. She remembers a mother with two children in her arms about to jump out of a window.
“The building is burning, and the lady lives over there, and she tried to jump.”
The witness, her daughter and a daughter’s friend positioned themselves below the window and told the woman to let the children jump so they could catch them.
“She dropped the babies and she said, ‘oh my God.’ And my daughter takes one baby, and the other baby, my daughter’s friend (takes).”
The residents, most of them poor immigrants from Central America, tried to escape by jumping from windows or balconies or climbing down bedsheets. 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 and two of the women who perished in the fire were pregnant.
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