A former gang member was found guilty of 12 counts of murder Tuesday for his role in setting a 1993 fire in a crowded apartment building in Westlake at the center of the neighborhood’s unchecked drug trade.
The fire killed seven children and three women, two of whom were 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 must be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors had argued to jurors that Valerio decided to set fire to the apartment building after its manager reported to police the constant drug sales that took place outside the building. The complaints threatened a stream of thousands of dollars in protection money that Valerio and his gang were collecting from the dealers every week, prosecutors said.
Valerio, who testified in his defense, acknowledged that he collected “taxes” from dealers who sold heroin and rock cocaine in his gang’s territory, but he denied sparking 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 dealing and gang violence outside their doors, could not afford to move anywhere else.
At the time, prosecutors said, Westlake was “the crack cocaine capital of Los Angeles,” and Valerio’s gang, the Columbia Lil Cycos clique of 18th Street, controlled Burlington Avenue, a lucrative drug corridor that ran through the heart of their territory.
One drug trafficker, Johanna Lopez, testified that she gave $7,000 a week to Valerio, who was nicknamed “Greedy,” for permission to staff Burlington Avenue with dealers who sold crack cocaine in shifts. By the time of the fire, that figure had risen to $25,000, she said.
In 1993, Lopez complained to Valerio and another member of the gang, Juan “Termite” Romero, that the property manager at the building was calling the police and changing the locks to keep the dealers and gang members from fleeing inside the building. Lopez testified that Valerio and Romero told her they would take care of the problem.
Around 4:30 p.m. on May 3, 1993, smoke began to billow out of the 67-unit building. Residents jumped out of balconies to escape the smoke that was engulfing the third floor. Ten died of smoke inhalation: Lancey Mateo, 1, Alejandrina Roblero, 29, Yadira Verdugo, 6, Leyver Verdugo, 10, William Verdugo, 8, Rosalia Camargo, 6, Jesus Camargo, 4, Jose Camargo, 4, Olga Leon, 24, and Rosalia Ruiz, 21. Leon and Ruiz were pregnant.
The source of the fire was a mattress that had been doused in lighter fluid and ignited at the door to the manager’s apartment.
After the fire, Valerio went on to become a key informant for the FBI, which was building a racketeering case against the Columbia Lil Cycos and its imprisoned boss, Francisco “Puppet” Martinez.
The Los Angeles Police Department, however, was eyeing Valerio as a suspect in the fire. Interviewed by detectives several times over the decades, he consistently 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 secured the testimony of new witnesses and gleaned fresh details from old ones.
The witnesses — mostly aging gang members and drug dealers — testified that Valerio had discussed sending a message to the property manager, even proposing once that they light a “little fire.”
Lopez, the dealer whose complaints set the catastrophe in motion, 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 has been issued for his arrest, prosecutors said.