Two Longtime Hotel Workers Arrested on Arson Charges in Fire That Killed 96
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ A Dupont Plaza Hotel busboy was charged Wednesday with helping a maintenance worker start the New Year’s Eve fire that killed 96 people at the luxury hotel.
Both longtime hotel employees were in custody on arson and other charges as investigators indicated more arrests could follow. A federal complaint alleges the actions of the suspect accused of setting the fire were shielded by more than one person.
″The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will continue to investigate this case until we’re certain anyone connected with the fire has been identified and brought to justice,″ said Jerry Rudden, a spokesman for the agency.
Another federal investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, ″We’re trying to find everyone who was involved. If it was two people we want them both; if it was 10 people we want all 10.″
Armando Jimenez Rivera, a 28-year-old bar busboy, was arrested Tuesday and arraigned Wednesday in U.S. District Court on charges of arson and ″aiding and abetting.″ He was accused of helping Hector Escudero Aponte, 35, set fire to the hotel.
Jimenez Rivera provided Sterno-type fuel that Escudero Aponte placed on a pile of new furniture stacked along a wall of the hotel’s south ballroom, the federal complaint against him alleged.
Escudero Aponte was charged in federal court Tuesday with arson and in Puerto Rico District Court with arson, destruction of property and 96 counts of murder.
Possible local charges were under review against Jimenez Rivera as well, said commonwealth Justice Department spokesman Eric Landron, who would not disclose what those charges might be.
Federal complaints against the two suspects were formalized by a grand jury into indictments on Wednesday.
Both men, if convicted, face maximum sentences of life imprisonment. Puerto Rico does not have the death penalty.
Court documents said the FBI obtained confessions from Jimenez Rivera and Escudero Aponte, a father of two who worked at the hotel for 10 years. Federal officials identified the men as members of the Teamsters Union.
Federal investigators, who asked not to be identified by name or agency, said Escudero Aponte broke down during questioning Sunday and confessed his role and implicated others, including, but not limited to, Jimenez Rivera.
″Arrest warrants, no. But we’re looking for others,″ a federal investigator said. ″If we have probable cause, we will make an arrest.″
Teamsters Union leaders denied again Wednesday they had anything to do with the fire.
″No one in the union leadership in any way had anything to do with the Dupont Plaza fire,″ said Rene Rodriguez, president of the union in Puerto Rico. ″I cannot say other union members were not involved.″
The union had adjourned a meeting in the ballroom a few minutes before the fire broke out. At the meeting, the union rejected a hotel contract offer and planned to strike at midnight New Year’s Eve.
The federal complaint against Jimenez Rivera, who the FBI said worked at the hotel for 10 years, asserted he gave the fuel to Escudero Aponte ″and then stood with others in front of Escudero to block others’ view so that Escudero could put the Sterno on a stack of boxed furniture in the south ballroom area.″
U.S. Attorney Daniel Lopez Romo would not disclose where the two men were being held. He said they faced separate trials.
Lopez Romo said bail for both suspects had been denied by U.S. District Judge Justo Arenas, who set preliminary hearings for next Tuesday.
The federal complaint against Escudero Aponte said he told the FBI he went to the hotel at 2 p.m. Dec. 31 to set fire to ″personal property″ of the hotel.
Officials say the fire started about 3:20 p.m. in the ground-floor ballroom and sent dense smoke through the mezzanine-level casino and lobby and the next four floors. Guests and staff raced to the roof where they were plucked off by helicopters or jumped from lower level windows and balconies to escape the heat and smoke. More than 140 were injured.
A San Juan newspaper quoted unidentified police sources as saying Escudero Aponte was ″emotionally tormented″ when he confessed to starting the fire.
″This man was morally destroyed,″ El Nuevo Dia quoted a policeman as saying. ″He had the weight of 96 deaths and the suffering of hundreds of families (on his conscience).″
Police reported Escudero Aponte won a local prize for weightlifting and was nicknamed ″Hercules″ by friends.
Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon suggested on Jan. 4, when investigators ruled the fire had been deliberately set, that hostile labor-management relations were a possible criminal motivation for arson. He did not name any individual or group.