A Montebello man who was initially charged along with two others with murder in the deaths of 10 people, including two pregnant women, in a 1993 arson fire at an apartment building in the Westlake area of Los Angeles was sentenced today to 11 years in state prison.
Superior Court Judge Curtis B. Rappe gave Joseph Alberto Monge, 47, credit for time he has already served behind bars and ordered him to be released from custody after the sentencing.
Monge pleaded guilty in February 2020 to one count of voluntary manslaughter involving the death of Olga Leon.
He and co-defendants Ramiro Alberto Valerio, now 49, and Johanna Lopez, now 57, were charged in 2017 with 12 counts of murder in connection with the May 3, 1993, blaze at the 69-unit complex in the 300 block of West Burlington Avenue.
Authorities said in 2017 that they believed the fire was set in retaliation because a building manager was trying to crack down on drug-dealing at the apartment complex.
A fourth person, who is suspected of starting the fire inside the apartment building, is still being sought by authorities.
Valerio was convicted of 10 counts of first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree murder of a human fetus.
Jurors in Valerio’s trial also found true the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during arson of an inhabited structure.
Valerio is facing life in prison without the possibility of parole, with sentencing set Nov. 4.
Lopez — described in court by a prosecutor as a “major drug dealer” — pleaded guilty in February 2020 to two counts of voluntary manslaughter and is facing 22 years in state prison, with sentencing expected Thursday.
In his closing argument in Valerio’s trial, Deputy District Attorney Victor Avila called it a “horrific crime,” and said it was “the result of the greed not only of this defendant, but his gang” involving a “money-making enterprise that cannot be jeopardized.”
“These victims had the misfortune to live in the area controlled by this defendant’s gang,” the prosecutor said. “They control these areas because they instill fear in these people.
“This was not an accidental fire,” Avila added, noting that it was set in front of the manager’s apartment and that the manager was the target but didn’t die.
He noted that Valerio was being prosecuted under a theory of aiding and abetting, and that he didn’t have to be the one who went in and lit the match. The prosecutor said Valerio remained outside to act as a lookout.
Valerio’s attorney, James Hallett, questioned the credibility of four of the prosecution’s most important witnesses, including Lopez.
The defense attorney contended that the witnesses’ years-long delay in reporting their allegations against Valerio was “enough reason to doubt them.”
Jurors had to decide whether the government’s case overcame the presumption of innocence for Valerio and established sufficient, reliable evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Valerio specifically directed the commission of the arson, the defense attorney told the panel.
“If you hate Ramiro because he was involved in drug-dealing and all that involves … that’s not enough,” Hallett said. “The issue here is whether or not he directed the lighting of this fire… We don’t have any reliable evidence.”
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At an October 2017 hearing in which Valerio, Lopez and Monge were ordered to stand trial, Los Angeles County Deputy Medical Examiner Christopher Rogers testified that “the main problem with smoke is it has a lot of carbon monoxide.” He noted that “you would need only a few breaths to die.”
Those who died as a result of smoke inhalation from the fire were: Olga Leon, 24, and Rosalia Ruiz, 21, who were both pregnant; 1-year-old Lancy Mateo, 3-year-old Jose Camargo, 4-year-old Jesus Camargo, 6-year-old William Verdugo, 7-year-old Rosia Camargo, 8-year-old Yadira Verdugo, 10-year-old Leyver Verdugo and 29-year-old Alejandrina Roblero.