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18th Street gang member takes plea in 1993 Westlake apartment arson that left 10 dead

The scene of the 1993 Westlake apartment fire that left 10 people dead.
The scene of the 1993 Westlake apartment fire that left 10 people dead.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

An 18th Street gang member pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges Friday for his role in a deadly revenge-fueled arson that left 10 people dead in Los Angeles more than a quarter-century ago, prosecutors said.

Joseph Monge, 44, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and will be sentenced to 11 years in prison later this year, according to Greg Risling, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Monge was one of three defendants expected to stand trial in a 1993 blaze at a Westlake apartment complex that claimed the lives of three women and seven children: Olga Leon, 24, and her three children — Rosia, 7, Jesus and Jose, both 4; Alejandrina Roblero, 29, and her three children — Leyver, 11, William and Yadira, both 6; and Rosalia Ruiz, 21, and Lancy Mateo, 1.

Los Angeles law enforcement leaders announced the charges against Monge, Johanna Lopez and Ramiro “Greedy” Valerio in 2017. The 18th Street gang held sway over Westlake in the 1990s, and police have said the fire was set after Lopez expressed frustration with a manager at the apartment complex, who had taken efforts to curb narcotics sales on the property.

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Lopez was arrested in 2011. According to court filings connected to her case, she had been paying Valerio and another man for the right to sell drugs on 18th Street’s turf. In 1993, Lopez said, she told Valerio the manager was driving down her profits and urged gang members to intervene on her behalf, according to court transcripts.

The fire started on the second floor and spread rapidly because a number of safety doors in the complex had been propped open, fire officials said in the weeks after the blaze. The complex had been repeatedly cited for safety violations, including having dysfunctional smoke detectors.

The inferno’s sudden spread left residents frantic to escape. Some formed human chains to help older neighbors escape, and in some instances, parents threw their children out windows, hoping someone would catch them. One man watched in horror as his wife and three of his children ran into the smoke, where they perished.

More than 100 residents were displaced, and more than 40 were injured.

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Monge was described as a lookout on the day of the fire and has agreed to testify against his co-defendants, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the case candidly.

Monge previously served nine years in a Mexican prison after he was convicted of a former girlfriend’s murder, the LAPD said at the time of his arrest.

When they announced the charges in 2017, Los Angeles prosecutors said a fourth suspect was wanted in connection with the deadly fire, though he may have fled the country. Prosecutors did not immediately respond to questions about that suspect.

Court records show Lopez is scheduled to stand trial in connection with the fire later this month. Valerio’s next court appearance is scheduled for late March.


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