A former gang member was found guilty of 12 counts of murder on Tuesday for his role in the 1993 fire at an overcrowded building in Westlake, at the center of the neighborhood’s runaway drug trade.
The fire killed seven children and three women, two of them pregnant.
Ramiro Valerio, 49, bowed his head as the clerk read the verdict. Because the jury found him guilty of first degree murder with several special circumstances, he should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors had argued to jurors that Valerio decided to set the building on fire after its manager reported to police the constant drug sales taking place outside the building. The complaints threatened a stream of thousands of dollars in protection money that Valerio and his gang collected weekly from dealers, prosecutors said.
Valerio, who testified in his defense, admitted to collecting “taxes” from dealers who sold heroin and rock cocaine in his gang’s territory, but he denied starting the fire or ordering that it be done.
The building at 330 S. Burlington Ave. was home to many immigrants from Mexico and Central America who, while aware of the drug trade and gang violence outside their doors, could not afford to move elsewhere.
At the time, prosecutors said, Westlake was “the crack capital of Los Angeles,” and Valerio’s gang, 18th Street Columbia Lil Cycos clique, controlled Burlington Avenue, a lucrative drug corridor that ran through the heart of their territory.
A drug dealer, Johanna Lopez, testified that she gave $7,000 a week to Valerio, nicknamed “Greedy”, for permission to staff Burlington Avenue with dealers who dealt crack cocaine on a rotating basis. By the time of the fire, that figure had risen to $25,000, she said.
In 1993, Lopez complained to Valerio and fellow gang member Juan “Termite” Romero that the building’s property manager was calling the police and changing the locks to keep the merchants and gang members from fleeing. inside the building. Lopez testified that Valerio and Romero told her they would take care of the issue.
Around 4:30 p.m. on May 3, 1993, smoke began billowing from the 67-unit apartment building. Residents jumped from balconies to escape the smoke engulfing the third floor. Ten died from smoke inhalation: Lancey Mateo, 1 year old, Alejandrina Roblero, 29 years old, Yadira Verdugo, 6 years old, Leyver Verdugo, 10 years old, William Verdugo, 8 years old, Rosalia Camargo, 6 years old, Jesus Camargo, 4 years old, Jose Camargo, 4 years old, Olga Leon, 24 years old. , and Rosalia Ruiz, 21. Leon and Ruiz were pregnant.
The source of the fire was a mattress that had been doused with lighter fluid and ignited at the door of the manager’s apartment.
After the fire, Valerio became a key informant for the FBI, which was plotting a racketeering case against the Columbia Lil Cycos and his imprisoned boss, Francisco “Puppet” Martinez.
The Los Angeles Police Department, however, considered Valerio a suspect in the fire. Questioned by detectives several times over the decades, he always denied having anything to do with it.
In 2017 Valerio was arrested at a Rite Aid in Santa Clarita where he worked as a manager and charged with 12 counts of murder. Detectives had obtained testimony from new witnesses and gleaned new details from old ones.
The witnesses – mostly aging gang members and drug dealers – said Valerio had considered messaging the property manager, even offering once they start a “little fire”.
Lopez, the dealer whose complaints sparked the disaster, pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter and agreed to testify against Valerio in exchange for a 22-year sentence.
Romero, accused of setting fire to the mattress, remains a fugitive. A warrant for his arrest has been issued for him, prosecutors said.
Los Angeles Times