‘A Fire to Scare Them’ — The Truth Behind One of L.A.’s Deadliest Blazes

Prosecutors say that a violent gang and an FBI informant were behind a 1993 blaze that left 10 dead, including two pregnant women

One of Los Angeles’ deadliest fires took place on May 3, 1993 in Westlake, a neighborhood prosecutors referred to at the time as “the crack cocaine capital” of the city, the Los Angeles Times reports.

As smoke swallowed the 67-unit apartment complex at 330 S. Burlington Ave., people began jumping off their balconies, testified 49-year-old Ramiro Valerio, who was on trial for the deaths of seven children and three women, two of whom were pregnant.

Authorities continued to investigate the tragic fire over the years and last week, nearly three decades later, former gang member Valerio was convicted of 12 counts of murder for his role in setting the blaze. The trial has since revealed the events that led up to that day.

Valerio—nicknamed, “Greedy”—belonged to 18th Street, a local gang that dominated the drug trade for heroin and crack cocaine in the area, the Times reports. Prosecutors argued that Valerio, who was a known shot caller within the gang, had ordered the fire in order to continue dealing without interference from the apartment complex, and to keep money flowing to the gang’s imprisoned leader.

At the time, the prison-based Mexican Mafia gang wielded control over Latino street crews, ordering them to collect “rent” from drug dealers who operated in their territory. An older member of 18th Street called Sinner gave Valerio, who was 18, the responsibility of taxing drug dealers on the corner of Burlington Avenue—known as “the drug capital of Los Angeles”—and 6th Street, he testified.

Valerio soon became “the money guy” after Sinner and another senior gang member were arrested, and he began working directly under Francisco Martinez, “the boss of the whole thing.”

Martinez, who went by “Puppet,” is an 18th Street member who joined the Mexican Mafia. From his cell at the supermax Pelican Bay prison, he collected taxes and sent orders to his subordinates through his wife, Valerio testified, according to the Times.

Valerio was in charge of delivering money to Martinez’s wife at her home in Huntington Park. He also made the 12-hour drive to Pelican Bay with her to see her husband, he said in court.

“He liked to know everything,” Valerio testified. “If you made a move that disrupted his business, he wanted to know. If you didn’t and he found out, that would not be good for you.”

One of the people paying taxes to Valerio was Johanna Lopez, a 28-year-old Honduran national. She oversaw five wholesalers who supplied rock cocaine to roughly 30 street-level dealers.

Lopez’s dealers worked outside the Burlington apartment complex, the residents of which were predominantly immigrants from Mexico and South America in 1993, according to the Times.

Lopez, who pled guilty to manslaughter in early 2018 for her role in the fire, testified that she complained to Valerio and Juan “Termite” Romero—who worked closely with Valerio’s clique—that the building’s property manager had gone to the police and changed the locks to prevent dealers and gang members from being able to hide inside when police showed up.

The wife of Anthony “Coco” Zaragoza—a childhood friend of Valerio who was also a member of his crew—testified that Valerio said during a meeting that a beating from the gang had failed to bring the property manager in line.

“We should do a little fire,” she recalled Valerio saying, “a fire to scare them.”

Valerio claimed that no one told him that the manager called the police, and that it wouldn’t have made an impact on his business dealings anyway. “The area is hot, regardless,” he testified. “There’s drug-dealing everywhere.”

Prosecutors said in a 2017 news release that the property manager was moving furniture into her apartment when a mattress was set ablaze in the hallway. Authorities determined that it had been doused with lighter fluid.

Lopez testified that before the blaze broke out, she saw Valerio hand a bag to Romero, who said, “Better leave here, because this thing is going to get hot.”

Several other witnesses implicated the pair. One resident said she saw them standing near an entrance to the building about 15 minutes before the fire started, and an 18th Street member testified that Valerio and Romero showed up at an apartment with another gang member after the fire started, carrying black trash bags and smelling of lighter fluid.

Valerio denies any involvement with the fire. He testified that he had been eating at a burger stand on 6th Street with friends when ambulances and firetrucks sped by to respond to the blaze.

Valerio continued working with Martinez until 1994, when members of his gang started to question whether he was cooperating with law enforcement. He later testified that he had, in fact, met with an officer at the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division and offered to provide information on his gang.

He explained in court that his decision to cooperate with police was prompted by the 1992 death of his older brother, Ismael Valerio. He wanted out, but he was in too deep, the Times reports.

That same year, members of the Mexican Mafia met in a motel room that had been set up for surveillance by the FBI to discuss whether Valerio had been presenting himself on the street as member, which was a violation of Mexican Mafia code. They decided to have him murdered, and also spoke about killing off Martinez, Valerio’s boss, based on rumors that the pair had skimming money off the top.

By 1997, Valerio had decided to become an official informant for the FBI after agents said members of his crew were planning to have him killed.

“It was time to do the right thing, frankly,” he claimed in court.

Valerio wore a wire and introduced undercover cops to drug wholesalers, and the information he provided helped the FBI tap the phones of Martinez’s wife. In 1999, federal prosecutors were able to indict Martinez, his wife, Zaragoza, Romero and 21 others in a massive racketeering case.

But in 2016, detectives who hadn’t given up on solving the 1993 fire obtained Valerio’s FBI files. According to the Times, in the recordings that he made as an informant, Valerio boasted about organizing his gang’s rackets from “top to bottom, from business to everything.” Prosecutors would later use this information to argue that Valerio, as a leader of the gang and Martinez’s go-to, had the ability and motive to order the fire.

Valerio was arrested the next year at a Rite Aid in Santa Clarita, where he was working as a manager. He was charged with murder.

His accomplice Romero, who prosecutors say actually lit the fire, is a fugitive and is believed to have fled the country.

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