After 24 years, arrests made in L.A. fire that killed 10, including 7 children

Los Angeles police said Saturday that multiple people have been arrested in connection with a devastating 1993 fire that killed 10 people, including seven children and two pregnant women, in a Westlake district apartment building.

The fire, in an old apartment building packed with immigrants from Latin America, stunned the city, exposed flaws in fire inspection procedures and prompted reforms. Police have long believed the fire was arson, started by gang members possibly angry at not being allowed to deal drugs in the building.

Officer Aareon Jefferson, an LAPD spokesman, said Saturday he did not have the names of the suspects who had been arrested. He declined further comment on the case.

But a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said three arrests were made in connection with the deadly fire. LAPD homicide detectives arrested two men Friday on conspiracy to commit murder, while a female suspect already was in custody on suspicion of murder.

A fourth male suspect remains at large.

All of the suspects are tied to the 18th Street gang, according to multiple sources. The motive for the fire apparently was part of an effort by the gang to keep control of the narcotics business in the neighborhood, officials said.

Several detectives have spent years trying to build a criminal case against those they say are responsible for one of the city’s deadliest fires.

LAPD has scheduled a news conference on the case for Monday.

Prosecutors previously had accused two gang members of starting the fire but eventually dropped the charges.

About 75 men, women and children — most of them poor Latino immigrants — fled in terror from the three-story building when the blaze erupted on May 3, 1993. Some leaped from windows. Others clambered down metal fire escape ladders. Still others lowered themselves down sheets tied to wrought-iron balcony railings.

By the time firefighters arrived, neighbors had formed a human chain clinging to the side of the building, passing small children hand to hand to those below. Despite their efforts, many residents fell victim to the smoke, which filled hallways and rooms, reducing visibility to near-zero.

The fire exposed the substandard conditions of many buildings crammed with immigrant families in the Westlake-Pico Union area. A Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that the Fire Department inspected the area infrequently and haphazardly. Fire officials failed to follow procedures in ordering the building owner to address violations that officials said contributed to the 10 deaths.

Many of the buildings had serious fire safety violations, such as missing fire extinguishers and padlocked emergency exits, The Times investigation found. The building in the 300 block of South Burlington Avenue that was the site of the fatal fire had earlier been the target of a suspected arson, and inspections had detected a series of safety violations there — but they were not corrected.

In 1998, prosecutors filed multiple murder charges against two members of the notorious 18th Street gang. They alleged that Rogelio Andrade and Allan Lobos started the fire to intimidate an apartment manager who had tried to drive drug dealers off her property.

But two years later, the charges against the men were dropped, with prosecutors saying there was a lack of evidence.

“It wasn’t clear these were the right guys,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Esposito, who was prosecuting the case, said at the time. “No one is thrilled with the idea [of dropping the charges], but we don’t want to prosecute innocent people.”

The 69-unit apartment building was one of many in the Westlake community beset by gang activity at the time. Just hours before the blaze erupted, the apartments’ manager ordered two men out of the building, suspecting that they were dealing drugs. Police said at the time that dealers in the neighborhood were selling thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs a day, much of it coming from the Burlington building.

cindy.chang@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com 

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