Suspects in San Juan Hotel Fire Transferred to Florida
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Two of the three men charged in the New Year’s Eve hotel fire that killed 96 people have been transferred to a Florida jail and are under special security, officials said today.
The San Juan Star newspaper today quoted unidentified federal and commonwealth officials as saying more arrests in the case were ″certain.″ But Puerto Rican and U.S. officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said only that the investigation into the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire was continuing.
A third Dupont Plaza Hotel employee was arrested and charged Thursday with arson and 96 counts of first-degree murder in the blaze, which also injured 140 people.
Bartender Jose Francisco Rivera Lopez, 40, of Carolina, Puerto Rico, was arrested and held overnight at the Rio Piedras State Penitentiary in San Juan. San Juan Superior Court Judge Carlos Rivera Martinez set bail at $2.6 million.
The Dupont Plaza blaze was the second-worst hotel fire in U.S. history.
Herman Wirshing, U.S. marshal in Puerto Rico, told The Associated Press in San Juan today that two previously charged suspects, Hector Escudero Aponte and Armando Jimenez Rivera, have been ″removed from the island to another location.″
He refused to say when or to where they were transferred.
But the U.S. Marshal’s Service in Miami, consulted today, confirmed that the two, who are also charged with arson and 96 counts of murder, were in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in southwest Dade County.
Jim Simmons, detention supervisor at the U.S. Marshal’s Service for Southern Florida, said fear for the men’s safety could have been one of the reasons for the transfer.
″I’m not at liberty to discuss too many details as far as security measures to protect any inmate,″ said Angel Montalvo, a jail spokesman. ″However, they’re under more supervision by staff than the general population.″
Wirshing said he knew of no specific death threats against the men.
Rivera Lopez was a bartender at the hotel for the past two years. Escudero Aponte, 35, was a maintenance worker at the Dupont Plaza and Jimenez Rivera, 29, was a bartender’s assistant. Both are from Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
All three face the murder and arson charges in the commonwealth’s court and arson or arson-related charges in federal court. The federal court denied Escudero Aponte and Jimenez Rivera bail, while the commonwealth court set bail for the two at more than $2 million each.
The federal indictment alleges Rivera Lopez ″did knowingly procure″ the setting of the blaze, but does not elaborate on the charge.
According to federal court documents, Escudero Aponte has confessed he set the blaze. Jimenez Rivera is charged with aiding Escudero.
U.S. Attorney Daniel Lopez Romo said Thursday he has asked the federal court to deny bail to Rivera Lopez.
All three suspects are members of Teamsters Union Local 901, which was in the midst of bitter contract negotiations with management of the Dupont Plaza.
The union, which has not been implicated by authorities in the fire, had threatened to strike at midnight New Year’s Eve.
The fire broke out in the first-floor ballroom minutes after more than 200 Teamster union members met and rejected a management contract proposal. It quickly spread to the second-floor casino, where 91 of the victims died.
More than half of those killed were Puerto Ricans. Most of the rest were from the U.S. mainland. One tourist from Switzerland also died in the blaze.
A few days before the New Year’s Eve fire, there were three small fires at the hotel, none of which caused any injuries.
Puerto Rican officials on Thursday charged another hotel employee, Luis Elias Vega Rios, with setting a fire on the ninth floor of the hotel Dec. 27. That fire caused an esimated $500 damage.
Vega Rios was released on $1,000 bond Thursday. Neither police nor federal officials will say if Vega Rios is under investigation in the Dec. 31 fire.
Lawyers for injured victims and relatives of the dead and injured have filed suits seeking a total of more than $200 million in damages from the hotel owners.
The blaze was the second worst hotel fire in U.S. history, surpassed only by the Dec. 7, 1946 fire at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta which killed 119.