Hotel Worker Charged With Fire Fatal to 96

January 14, 1987|Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A Dupont Plaza Hotel maintenance worker was arrested Tuesday and charged with 96 counts of murder for the New Year's Eve fire at the luxury hotel.

Federal officials said early today that a second person had been arrested in the case, but would not identify him or provide any further information.

The maintenance worker, 35-year-old Hector Escudero Aponte, was an employee of the hotel for 10 years. According to charges filed in U.S. District Court in this U.S. commonwealth, Escudero Aponte set the fire "in concert with and in agreement with others."

Justice Secretary Hector Rivera Cruz and Jerry Rudden, chief spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that joined the investigation, also had said they did not believe Escudero Aponte had acted alone.

One federal investigator, speaking later on condition he not be identified, said: "I don't have any of the particulars, but there has been a second arrest."

Provided Material

The New York Times said in today's editions that the second suspect was taken into custody and was under detention Tuesday night. It quoted an unidentified federal official as saying the second detainee provided material to set the fire and had blocked Escudero Aponte from public view while the blaze was set.

According to the newspaper, the second suspect was a busboy at the hotel and, like Escudero Aponte, was a member of the local Teamsters union that had planned to strike the hotel.

The newspaper quoted the federal official as saying the second suspect, who was not identified, would be charged today with "conspiracy, aiding and abetting."

The Teamsters local had been involved in tense negotiations with management, but officials have not blamed the Teamsters for the fire, and union officials denied any involvement.

Rudden said the phrase "in agreement with others," is the "wordage for conspiracy."

Escudero Aponte used a Sterno-like fuel to torch new furniture stacked in the hotel's ground-floor ballroom, according to a complaint filed by the FBI in U.S. District Court.

The five-page complaint said Escudero Aponte went to the hotel at about 2 p.m. on Dec. 31 and set the fire shortly after a union meeting broke up. The fire, which killed 96 people and injured about 140 others, raged out of control through the ballroom and then through the casino directly above.

Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon has said tense labor-management relations may have been a motive for the fire, but he has not blamed the union--which had planned a strike for midnight New Year's Eve--or hotel management or non-Teamster employees.

The FBI contended that Escudero Aponte confessed to his role in the fire and added: "He was identified as having stated to another union member that the Sterno-type fuel can that he possessed and had in his hand was to start a 'small fire.' "

The federal indictment accused Escudero Aponte of setting the fire and thus interfering with interstate and foreign commerce. He received a hearing on that charge before U.S. District Judge Justo Arenas, who ordered him jailed without bail until Friday. A preliminary hearing was set for Jan. 20.

The commonwealth indictment accused Escudero Aponte of 96 cases of first-degree murder plus arson and destruction of property. Each murder charge carries a maximum penalty of 99 years in jail.

Father of Two Children

Escudero Aponte, the father of two, could be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail if convicted for arson, and 15 years for destruction of property.

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