Los Angeles Occasions
Juan “Termite” Romero was as soon as a frontrunner of the 18th Avenue gang, shaking down drug sellers on the streets of Westlake within the Nineties. After being focused for demise by his imprisoned boss, Romero became the government’s star witness in a racketeering case that despatched dozens of his associates to jail.
Romero disappeared into witness safety, residing below an assumed identify removed from his outdated neighborhood. However Los Angeles County prosecutors have introduced the 57-year-old out of hiding, alleging he set fire in 1993 to a crowded apartment building, killing seven kids and three girls, two of them pregnant.
Romero appeared Wednesday morning in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, the place he deferred coming into a plea to 12 counts of homicide. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, the brief man with thinning hair hardly resembled the gang member who stared right into a digicam a long time earlier, a thick gold chain draped above the phrases “Child I’m For Actual” tattooed alongside his collarbone.
The final of 4 defendants to face prices within the arson, Romero has been a fugitive since 2016, when detectives traveled to the Phoenix condominium advanced the place he had been residing and located the protected witness had moved only a week earlier. One detective testified she discovered the timing “extremely unusual.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Victor Avila declined to specify the place or when Romero was arrested, however mentioned he was extradited from Mexico. Information present he was booked into the Los Angeles County jail on Dec. 5.
Daniel Nardoni, an legal professional who was initially assigned to signify Romero at his transient look Wednesday, mentioned he knew nothing of Romero’s apprehension or the proof towards him.
Romero is accused of setting fireplace to a three-story, 67-unit stucco constructing on Burlington Avenue the afternoon of Might 3, 1993. Testifying at a trial in 2022, a retired firefighter recalled individuals leaping from balconies whereas paramedics tried to revive others sprawled on the sidewalk. The smoke inside was so thick, he recalled, it was “like being underwater and attempting to take a breath.”
Useless from smoke inhalation had been Lancey Mateo, 1; Jesus Camargo, 4; Jose Camargo, 4; Rosalia Camargo, 6; Yadira Verdugo, 6; William Verdugo, 8; Leyver Verdugo, 10; Rosalia Ruiz, 21; Olga Leon, 24; and Alejandrina Roblero, 29. Ruiz and Leon had been pregnant.
Informants instructed Los Angeles Police Division detectives the hearth was tied to the neighborhood drug commerce. Outdoors the constructing stood the traqueteros — street-level sellers — who offered crack cocaine and heroin all day and night time, based on testimony. The constructing’s residents, principally Mexican and Central American immigrants who subdivided items or slept in shifts to save cash, couldn’t afford to maneuver.
“All of us have limitations,” testified one man who misplaced two nephews and a niece within the fireplace. “We didn’t earn quite a bit, so you may solely dwell in a spot you may afford.”
For the appropriate to work on this nook of Westlake, a dense neighborhood simply west of downtown Los Angeles, the traqueteros paid “lease” to the native gang, the Columbia Lil Cycos clique of 18th Avenue. So did the mayoristas, or wholesalers, who equipped them.
The mayorista who ran the Burlington Avenue hall was Johanna Lopez, who testified in 2022 she obtained her begin within the drug commerce as a traquetero after immigrating from Honduras in 1990. Lopez was promoting cocaine exterior the identical constructing that may catch fireplace three years later when, she mentioned, she was confronted by Romero and one other 18th Avenue member, Ramiro “Grasping” Valerio.
Valerio, testifying at his trial in 2022, mentioned he met Romero after becoming a member of the Columbia Lil Cycos at 15. Seven years older than Valerio, Romero purchased him garments and taught him “to decorate like a gang member,” Valerio testified.
Valerio mentioned he and Romero collected cash from the traqueteros on Burlington Avenue and Bonnie Brae Avenue and delivered the money to the spouse of their imprisoned boss, Francisco “Puppet” Martinez.
Lopez testified she paid Valerio and Romero $75 per week to hawk medication exterior the Burlington constructing. A few 12 months into the association, she mentioned, Valerio and Romero requested if she wished to maneuver into supplying the traqueteros. Romero, Lopez testified, promised to promote her cocaine on credit score at a “good worth.”
Lopez agreed. She offered cocaine to 30 sellers who labored in shifts on two streets, delivering the gang’s $4,000-a-week reduce to Valerio in a briefcase. To make sure unsanctioned sellers didn’t encroach on her enterprise, 18th Avenue members patrolled the streets.
By 1993, Lopez testified, she was supplying traqueteros on 4 streets and kicking up $25,000 per week to Valerio and Romero. In alternate for payoffs, the Burlington condominium constructing’s supervisor allowed her sellers to flee inside when the police tried to arrest them.
Then the supervisor was fired. His alternative modified the locks and reported the drug gross sales to the police, Lopez testified. Along with her earnings dwindling, Lopez met Valerio and Romero at a pool corridor and requested them to scale back her lease.
Skeptical that gross sales had been down, Romero mentioned he wished to listen to it from the traqueteros themselves, she testified. Lopez, Valerio and Romero walked down Bonnie Brae Avenue, the place the sellers confirmed it. In keeping with Lopez, Romero mentioned he was “going to deal with the issue.”
The day of the hearth, Lopez testified, Romero instructed her: “Higher depart right here, as a result of this factor goes to get scorching.”
Lopez pleaded responsible to 2 counts of manslaughter and agreed to testify in alternate for a 22-year sentence. She had beforehand served a 12-year federal time period for promoting cocaine.
Salvador Granados, a fellow 18th Avenue member, testified that across the time the hearth broke out, Romero, Valerio and a 3rd man known as Snoopy burst into an condominium down the road from the burning constructing, carrying trash luggage that smelled like “barbecue liquid.”
Valerio seemed panicked, Granados recalled; Romero appeared “upset” and Snoopy was “all crimson, sweating.” Granados heard sirens exterior. As he obtained as much as depart, Granados testified, he heard Romero say, “We f—ed up. We f—ed up.”
However witnesses, together with Granados and Lopez, waited years to implicate Romero and Valerio within the fireplace, and solely after they had been dealing with prolonged jail phrases themselves. In the meantime, Valerio — and ultimately Romero — cooperated with FBI brokers and federal prosecutors in a separate racketeering case towards 18th Avenue.
Romero testified towards his former boss, Martinez, who was sentenced to life in jail. Valerio, who helped the FBI tape drug offers and launched undercover officers to gang members, moved out of Los Angeles and located work at film theaters, a Starbucks and a Ceremony Assist, based on a letter he wrote to the choose who sentenced him.
In 2013, the LAPD assigned two skilled detectives to revive the 20-year-old investigation. Det. Mitzi Roberts testified in 2022 that Valerio and Romero had been the first suspects, however the FBI had by no means shared its recordsdata on their prized informants with the LAPD.
An FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles declined to remark.
After requesting the data, “we had been met with roadblocks each step of the best way,” Roberts recalled, “and it felt — it was very curious to us as a result of we thought this was such a heinous crime and we felt there have been deliberate makes an attempt to not enable us entry to plenty of the data.”
The FBI ultimately turned over a number of terabytes of knowledge and “stacks of disks” of wiretapped calls involving Valerio and Romero, Roberts testified.
L.A. County prosecutors used the recordings Valerio made on the behest of the FBI to display he had the authority in 18th Avenue to order the arson. In a single tape, Valerio mentioned, “I used to be primary with Termite.”
As soon as prosecutors determined to file prices, Roberts mentioned, she traveled to Phoenix, the place the property supervisor on the advanced the place Romero had been residing instructed her he’d moved out per week earlier.
Roberts testified that an FBI agent assigned to the investigation had briefed his supervisors about Romero’s deliberate arrest earlier than they went to Arizona.
Within the ensuing years, “we actually went in all places on the lookout for him, attempting to arrest him, from California to Texas. So far as I do know,” Roberts testified in 2022, “he’s in Mexico.”
Valerio has maintained his innocence. He testified he didn’t set the hearth — simply watched the billowing smoke in horror like everybody else within the neighborhood — however he was convicted of 12 murders and sentenced final 12 months to life in jail with out parole.
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