SAN DIEGO -- A man accused of drinking himself to sleep and passing out with a lit cigarette, causing a fire in Rancho Bernardo that killed his two children, pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of child endangerment causing death, reckless fire starting causing great bodily injury and involuntary manslaughter.
Henry Lopez, who was seriously injured in the Oct. 28 blaze, was charged on Wednesday and surrendered to authorities Thursday morning.
Witnesses spotted flames coming from the second-story of a condominium on Bernardo Terrace about 3:20 a.m. and dialed 911.
Firefighters arrived within minutes and found 7-year-old Isabella Lopez and 10-year-old Cristos Lopez upstairs with their father. Both children died later at a hospital.
Their father was found at the top of a staircase.
“Our belief is he drank himself to sleep in bed and fell asleep with a lit cigarette which lit his bed on fire and ultimately his house on fire and caused the death of his children," said Deputy District Attorney Kyle Sutterley.
Lopez was legally separated from his wife but the estranged couple owned the home together.
According to court documents, Lopez threatened to burn the residence down during a conversation about selling the condo and finalizing their divorce.
Sam Trink, a close friend of Nikia Lopez, the mother of Cristos and Bella, said the fire was no accident. She said for years, her friend was the victim of abuse and threats in her marriage to Henry.
"Everything that’s happened just through the marriage and then with the kids it’s hard when somebody makes threats to you and all of them keep getting carried out," said Trink.
Trink said Nikia continues to struggle financially while battling breast cancer, but now she must endure the incredible heartbreak of losing not one, but both of her children.
"It’s devastated her. It’s Christmas, it’s the kids favorite time of year. She keeps thinking they’re going to run around the corner and they’re not going to," said Trink.
Lopez faces 14 years in state prison if convicted.
Sutterley asked for Lopez to be held on $1 million bail, but Superior Court Judge Laura Halgren allowed the defendant to remain free on supervised release. He will be required to wear an alcohol-monitoring bracelet while he's out of custody.
He will be back in court Jan. 18 for a readiness conference and Feb. 27 for a preliminary hearing.