A 21-year-old man who had pleaded guilty to 25 counts of first-degree murder stemming from his setting of the Dorothy Mae Apartment-Hotel fire in 1982 was sentenced Friday to 625 years in prison.
Humberto de la Torre, who had entered his plea in April in exchange for an agreement by prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, showed no emotion as Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert R. Devich pronounced the staggering sentence.
Later, defense attorney Earl Hanson expressed disbelief, terming the judge’s action unfair, because De la Torre, unlike most murderers, never intended to kill his victims.
“At the time he did this, he had been drinking, he had smoked some marijuana and he went there in a cloudy haze with the intention of vandalism,” said Hanson, who indicated he may appeal. “He did not intend to hurt anybody.”
De le Torre, Hanson said, “will spend a death sentence day by day thinking of this.”
Said the judge: “I personally never want to see him (De la Torre) released and I doubt anyone else would.”
De la Torre admitted setting the fire in the aging Sunset Boulevard apartment-hotel as revenge against his uncle, the manager of the 55-year-old building, who had yelled at him during a family dispute.
Flash flames, ignited with gasoline, spread swiftly through the four-story building’s hallways and stairwells, incinerating 18 victims, with seven others later dying of their injuries. The victims, at least eight of whom were relatives of the defendant, included 13 children, 11 adults and one unborn fetus.
Devich, who noted that the case has caused him “a tremendous amount of anxiety and consternation,” said he decided to impose separate sentences of 25 years to life for each death because “each person killed in that terrible fire has a right to be considered in the final determination of what the sentence should be even if that final determination becomes 625 years to life.”
Unless the sentence is commuted by a future governor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Walt Lewis said, it is tantamount to life in prison since De la Torre could not be paroled for 312 years--close to the end of the 23rd Century.
“I’m not aware of any other sentence that has been this long (in Los Angeles County),” said Lewis, who termed the sentence “appropriate.”.
At the brief sentencing hearing attended by about a dozen relatives of victims, a distant relative of the defendant, Juan de la Torre, who lost 13 family members in the blaze, asked Devich to impose the death penalty. Devich replied that he could not do so under the conditions of the plea.
‘I Am Sorry’
The defendant, who did not speak at the sentencing, recently told a probation officer, “I am sorry and hurt by my error that I have committed. I am ready to do my time but desire not the maximum sentence or to get out when I am too old. I desire that the judge give me a chance to get out and to prove to the world that I am a good person.”
In the probation report, De la Torre added that if he were freed someday, he would study to become a lawyer or a policeman.
In issuing his sentence, however, Devich said, “I wonder if Mr. De la Torre even today realizes the magnitude of what he has done. . . . At least he is alive.
“When I first started to ponder the thought of how many years I would impose in this particular case, the concept of imposing the maximum accumulated time of 625 years to life appeared to be out of the question and ludicrous because of our life expectancy,” the judge added.
“However, when I took time to write on these sheets of paper the names of the 25 lives that were lost because of Mr. De la Torre, the fact was made very clear to me that we were dealing with human beings . . . enjoying life and their families. And now because of one man, these families were destroyed.”
Letters of Support
Hanson, who had asked for leniency because De la Torre had no prior criminal record and had helped support his family for years, presented about 50 letters of support from relatives, friends and employers including the owner of a market in Chinatown where the defendant worked for two years. De La Torre, described as an avid sports fan, was “a good, honest, hard-working and valued employee,” the market owner wrote.
De la Torre has told authorities he set the fire as revenge against his uncle--who was not injured--for having frequently complained to him about the activities of a local gang. The final disagreement, he said, concerned gang members writing on the walls of the apartment building. Although his uncle--and authorities--believe he was a member of the Salitre gang, De La Torre denied ever having belonged to a gang.
De la Torre, who came to California in 1968, was arrested three months after the blaze in his native village of El Salitre, in the northern Mexican state of Zacatecas. He subsequently offered written and taped confessions to authorities.