Suspects plead not guilty in 1993 Westlake fire that killed 10 people

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Three defendants on Tuesday each pleaded not guilty to 12 counts of murder in connection with a 1993 arson fire that killed 10 people at an apartment building in Westlake.

Prosecutors contend that Ramiro Valerio, 43, Joseph Monge, 41, and Johanna Lopez, 51, along with another suspect who is still at large, were gang members when they set a mattress on fire to intimidate an apartment manager and others who wanted to rid the complex of drug dealers.

The blaze claimed the lives of seven children and three adults, two of whom were pregnant women.

Valerio, Monge and Lopez were ordered by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Hanasono to be held without bail. They are each eligible for the death penalty.

Lopez's attorney, Robert Horner, said his client was wrongly accused and has "always denied any involvement in this fire."

He said Lopez had already been charged in the crime and was set to go to trial last week before the District Attorney's Office dismissed the case and filed new charges alongside Valerio and Monge.

"They're doing what they're doing in an attempt to squeeze my client into becoming a witness in the case," Horner said.

Valerio's sister, Dana Gates, described the charges as "a classic case of retaliation."

Gates claimed that the Los Angeles Police Department targeted her brother because her family filed a lawsuit against the agency after officers allegedly killed her younger brother, Ismael David Valerio, in 1992. According to Gates, the LAPD settled that case.

"I know he didn't do these crimes," Gates said, "and to see my brother -- who is innocent, a family man - go through this, it breaks my heart because I know he didn't do it."

Prosecutors are expected to decide whether to seek the death penalty for the accused arsonists. The defendants are scheduled to next appear in court Feb. 15.
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