SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ A hotel maintenance worker pleaded guilty to reduced charges today after confessing he set the hotel fire that killed 97 people on New Year’s Eve 1986.
A former vice president of the Teamsters Union’s Puerto Rico local and two union members were arrested today and also charged in connection with the 1986 fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel.
The arrests were made after Commonwealth prosecutors reached an agreement with Hector Escudero Aponte, who was to go on trial today on 97 counts of first degree murder and one count each of arson and conspiracy.
As part of the agreement, Escudero Aponte, 36, pleaded guilty to 97 counts of second-degree murder, arson and conspiracy. He was sentenced to concurrent terms totaling 30 years.
In exchange, he agreed to testify against the three people arrested today, said San Juan District Attorney Ismael Betancourt.
The Commonwealth Justice Department identified the men arrested today as Manuel de Jesus Santiago Rios, who was Teamsters Local 901 vice president at the time of the fire, and former hotel employees Luis M. Muniz Marquez and Luis Elias Vega Rios.
The three men were charged with 97 counts of first degree murder, and one count each of arson, conspiracy and damages. De Jesus Santiago Rios and Muniz Marquez also were charged with one count of perjury.
The three were jailed at an unspecified location after they were unable to post $2.5 million bail each.
Betancourt said prosecutors were able to file the charges after Escudero Aponte agreed to be a state witness.
Vega Rios had previously pleaded guilty to setting a smaller fire in the hotel Dec. 27, and was sentenced to probation.
Escudero Aponte was returned to Puerto Rico, a U.S. Commonwealth in the Caribbean, from a federal prison on the U.S. mainland for the trial.
He and two other Teamsters members - Armando Jimter the 1946 Winecoff Hotel blaze in Atlanta that killed 119.
Federal and local investigators said the blaze, which broke out in the ground-flood ballroom moments after members of Teamsters Local 901 voted to strike, was set to pressure hotel management into accepting the union’s contract demands.
Police said Escudero Aponte confessed to lighting a can of Sterno cooking fuel provided by Jimenez Rivera, while Rivera Lopez shielded them from view. The fuel ignited a stack of new furniture wrapped in heavy plastic, and set off a fireball of intense heart and toxic gas that burst into the crowded casino above.
The 20-story hotel was packed with nearly 1,000 tourists and local residents preparing to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Eighty-four of the victims died in the casino, including 19 hotel employees and a U.S. Secret Service agent. The others died in other sections of the hotel.
Lawsuits now total more than $1 billion. Defense lawyers charge that negligence by the hotel’s owners, who comprise a corporate web of 30 to 40 entities, and by the hotel suppliers contributed to the deaths and injuries.
A trial is scheduled for June 1, although attorney David C. Indiano, a spokesman for the court-appointed committee that is coordinating claims, said he expected an out-of-court settlement.