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California

A drunk dad’s cigarette caused a fire that killed his kids. He gets nearly 13 years in prison

Henry Lopez.jpg
Henry Lopez, with defense attorney Paul Neuharth Jr. at right, told the judge at sentencing Wednesday that justice was not done at his conviction.
(Pauline Repard / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A father of two children who died in a fire started by the cigarette he dropped when he passed out drunk was sentenced Wednesday to 12 years and eight months in state prison.

During the nearly three-hour sentencing hearing punctuated by hot tempers and tears, defendant Henry Lopez, 39, called the prosecutor a liar, exchanged heated words with his ex-wife and said he tried everything to save their children from the 2017 blaze that took their lives.

“Had I not been intoxicated, I don’t know if the outcome would have been any different,” Lopez said.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Steven Stone intervened as Lopez and his ex-wife, Nikia Lopez, shouted at each other when she accused him of “destroying” her when he physically abused her, turned to booze and other women and ultimately caused the deaths of their children.

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Isabella and Cristos Lopez family.jpg
Isabella and Cristos Lopez.
(Courtesy photos)

“I heard [Lopez] state that justice was not served and that in fact the prosecutor is a liar,” Stone said after Henry Lopez and family members on both sides had spoken. “I completely disagree with these statements. But to me, more importantly, is that it shows that the defendant has completely and utterly failed to accept responsibility for his actions.”

Then the judge imposed what he said was the maximum prison term allowed under the law.

Lopez was found guilty in September of two counts each of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment and one count of recklessly causing a fire in an inhabited home, with allegations that more than one person suffered death or great bodily injury.

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The deadly fire occurred in Lopez’s Rancho Bernardo condominium about 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 28, 2017. As flames spread from his bedroom to a hall and the children’s bedrooms, 7-year-old Isabella and 10-year-old Cristos were overcome by the smoke and fire. They did not survive.

Lopez’s attorney argued at trial that he initially ran from his bedroom and broke out a downstairs window, but then ran back upstairs to try to save his children. Firefighters found him unconscious at the head of the stairs, with burns over 13% of his body. He was kept in a medically induced coma for three weeks in a hospital.

Isabella was found curled up in her brother’s bedroom, on the bottom bunk bed. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the smoke, an autopsy revealed. Cristos was found on the floor of his father’s bedroom with fatal burns.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Kyle Sutterley argued to jurors that Lopez’s first thought was to save himself, not the children. He said Lopez had a texting argument with his girlfriend, drank a large amount whiskey and passed out on his bed.

Fire investigators determined that, given Lopez’s smoking habits, the likely cause of the blaze was a lighted cigarette dropped onto his bed. A melted bottle of Canadian whiskey was found on the floor nearby. His blood-alcohol content tested at .22 a few hours after the fire, about three times the limit at which California drivers are presumed to be under the influence.

Defense attorney Paul Neuharth Jr. said during the trial that a cellphone charger Lopez had under a pillow was the likely source of ignition. No trace of the charger was found in the charred ruins, but no cigarette butts were found in the room either. Neuharth said Lopez never smoked inside the house.

Repard writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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