LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A Palmdale man who was convicted of the murders of 10 people, including two pregnant women who died nearly three decades ago in an arson fire at an apartment building in the Westlake area of Los Angeles, was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ramiro Alberto Valerio -- whom prosecutors contended was a gang leader who went by the name of "Greedy" -- professed his innocence in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom where jurors found him guilty last June 1 of 10 counts of first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree murder of a human fetus involving the May 3, 1993, blaze at the 69-unit complex in the 300 block of West Burlington Avenue.
Jurors also found true the special-circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during arson of an inhabited structure, along with aggravating factors including one alleging that the victims were particularly vulnerable.
"In my heart, God knows I'm innocent," the 49-year-old defendant said shortly before being sentenced by Superior Court Judge Curtis B. Rappe.
Deputy District Attorney Victor Avila said Valerio was involved in the planning of the fire, but remained outside the apartment building to act as a lookout. The prosecutor told jurors during the trial that Valerio didn't have to be the one who went in and lit the match.
The man suspected of starting the fire inside the apartment building is suspected of being in Mexico and is still being sought by authorities.
Two other people have been released from jail after being sentenced to time already served behind bars in connection with the case.
Joseph Monge, whom prosecutors said served as a lookout, pleaded no contest to one count of voluntary manslaughter and admitted a gang allegation. The 47-year-old man was sentenced last October to 11 years in state prison and released later that day with credit for time already served.
Johanna Lopez -- who was described in court by a prosecutor as a "major drug dealer" who was present at meetings where the possibility of setting a fire was discussed -- pleaded guilty to three counts of voluntary manslaughter. Lopez, 57, was given credit last October for time she has already served behind bars since her January 2011 arrest by Los Angeles police, but was warned that she was facing deportation from the country because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had issued a hold on her.
"I apologize, your honor," Lopez, 57, told the judge at the hearing last October, adding that "nothing like this in my life will ever happen again."
Authorities said in 2017 that they believed the fire was set in retaliation for a building manager's efforts to crack down on drug-dealing at the apartment complex.
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.
The blaze left more than 40 others injured and more than 100 residents displaced.
In his closing argument in Valerio's trial, 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 the blaze was set in front of the manager's apartment and that the manager was the target but didn't die.
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."
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."
Valerio has remained behind bars since his February 2017 arrest by detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery-Homicide Division.