Cause of fire debated in trial for condo blaze that killed 2 children

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SAN DIEGO -- A Rancho Bernardo man upset about a fight with his girlfriend got drunk and fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand, sparking a fire that killed his two children, a prosecutor said Wednesday, but a defense attorney claimed a defective cellphone sparked the blaze, not a cigarette.

Henry Lopez, 39, is charged in the Oct. 28, 2017, deaths of 7-year-old Isabella Lopez and 10-year-old Cristos Lopez. He faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment and reckless fire starting.

Deputy District Attorney Kyle Sutterley said that following an argument with his girlfriend, Lopez was angry, got drunk and fell asleep while holding a cigarette, which ignited the fire around 3:15 a.m.

He told investigators he tried to save his children after waking to find the condo ablaze, but Sutterley said Lopez actually walked past his children's bedrooms, down the stairs and punched a first-floor window to try to escape the flames. He then went back upstairs and started pounding on the walls "for some reason," then passed out from the smoke at the top of the stairs, where firefighters later found him, Sutterley said.

Laneisha Young, who was Lopez's girlfriend at the time and is now his fiance, told jurors his children were his priority. “He loved them, he was great with them,” Young said.

According to the prosecutor, Cristos walked into his father's burning bedroom, laid down on the floor and burned to death. Isabella went into her brother's room, laid down on the bottom bunk bed and "fortunately never woke up" after passing out due to smoke inhalation, Sutterley said.

"A parent has a duty to care for, to protect and to sacrifice themselves if need be for their children," Sutterley told jurors in his opening statement. "But on Oct. 28, 2017, the defendant, Henry Lopez, failed the children."

Sutterley said wall outlets and candles in Lopez's bedroom were ruled out as potential causes of the blaze, as they were outside the area where investigators believe the fire began.

The prosecutor said a drinking glass and a plastic whiskey bottle were found in the area where the fire started. Sutterley said the items showed that Lopez used the glass as a makeshift ashtray, and had been drinking through the night. A similar glass was found full of cigarettes in a trash can in the home's garage. Lopez -- who was hospitalized with serious burn injuries -- had a 0.229 blood alcohol content when blood was drawn at a hospital less than two hours after the fire.

Lopez allegedly told investigators that he punched out the window in Isabella's bedroom in an effort to save her, but the window was untouched, Sutterley said

Smoke detectors in Lopez's bedroom and one of the children's rooms were unplugged or removed, according to the prosecutor.

Lopez's attorney, Paul Neuharth Jr., said there was no proof that a lit cigarette started the fire, and the investigation was geared from the start toward blaming Lopez, with other potential causes disregarded in favor of vilifying him.

Neuharth said instead the likely cause was Lopez's cell phone, which was left beneath his pillow while he slept. The phone was never found as it was destroyed in the blaze, Neuharth said.

The attorney said the only evidence of smoking inside the home came from the defendant's ex-wife, Nikia, who said she once witnessed Lopez smoking marijuana in his bed. She also talked about his issues with alcohol.

“On the nights that he would pass out I would wake him up -- you know, shove him, try to get him upstairs, put him in the bed. If he drank too much he would throw up on himself, so I had to clean him up and put him in the bed. I would throw away the bottles --not in our trash can. There was a church across the street with a dumpster, I would go over there,” Lopez’s ex-wife, Nikia Lopez, said.

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