Defendants Plead Guilty to Setting Fire That Killed 97
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Three hotel employees pleaded guilty Friday to federal charges of setting the New Year’s Eve fire that killed 97 people at the Dupont Plaza, and two of them pleaded guilty to murder counts.
The three changed their arson pleas from innocent as part of a plea bargain with federal prosecutors. The trial had been scheduled to begin Monday in U.S. District Court. Sentencing was set for June 22.
Hector Escudero Aponte, a 35-year-old maintenance worker, pleaded guilty to a federal charge of first-degree murder in the death of Secret Service agent Manuel de Jesus Marrero Otero, who was investigating a counterfeit-money case and died in the fire at the beachfront hotel.
The two other defendants are Armando Jimenez Rivera, 29, a bartender’s assistant, and Jose Francisco Rivera Lopez, 40, a bartender.
Immediately after the federal court hearing, Jimenez Rivera was taken to Puerto Rico Superior Court, where the three face charges of first-degree murder, arson and conspiracy.
Jimenez Rivera pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder, arson and conspiracy. Second-degree murder carries a prison sentence of 12 to 30 years.
The trial for Rivera Lopez and Escudero Aponte in Superior Court is scheduled to begin Aug. 24.
U.S. Attorney Daniel Lopez Romo, who filed the murder charge against Escudero Aponte at Friday’s hearing, said prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. The maximum sentence for federal arson charges is life in prison or death.
He said they recommended Escudero Aponte be given concurrent terms up to life and that Jimenez Rivera and Rivera Lopez be sentenced to 24 and 25 years respectively. Judge Jose A. Fuste, who is not bound by the recommendations, agreed to a prosecution request that the terms of the plea agreement be sealed.
The three defendants were charged with arson that interfered with interstate commerce.
All are members of the Teamsters Union local, which has denied involvement in the fire. It began in the ground-floor ballroom soon after a meeting by members of the union, which was engaged in bitter contract negotiations with the hotel.
Escudero Aponte was accused of setting the fire with canned fuel provided by Jimenez Rivera, who also shielded him from view. Rivera Lopez was alleged to have instigated the arson.
The Dupont Plaza fire began at about 3:30 p.m. and spread quickly through the bottom floors of the 20-story hotel, which was crowded with nearly 1,000 guests. Eighty-six of the victims died in the second-floor casino.
In addition to killing 97 people, the fire injured 146.
Civil suits have been filed totaling more than $563 million.
Court documents seen Friday by The Associated Press indicate prosecutors had negotiated with Jimenez Rivera about turning state’s evidence, but the negotiations ended in February.
Unconfirmed news reports in San Juan this week said a possible agreement was in the works to get at least one defendant to give testimony leading to the arrests of eight other people. The FBI denied eight arrests were imminent.