Father whose children died in condo fire found guilty

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SAN DIEGO — A man who fell asleep while drunk with a lit cigarette in his hand, sparking a fire in a Rancho Bernardo condominium that killed his two children, was convicted Monday of two counts of involuntary manslaughter, among other charges.

Henry Lopez, 39, was also convicted of two counts of child endangerment and one count of reckless fire-starting for the Oct. 28, 2017, fire that killed his 7-year-old daughter Isabella and 10-year-old son Cristos.

Jurors deliberated for about four days before returning their verdicts.

After being out of custody throughout the proceedings, Lopez was handcuffed following the verdicts, as San Diego County Superior Court Judge Steven E. Stone ruled he should be held without bail until sentencing. He faces nearly 17 years in state prison when he is sentenced Oct. 15.

The childrens’ mother and Lopez’s ex-wife, Nikia, said after the verdict that she wished she could handcuff Lopez herself, whom she said “thought he was above the law,” had a “God complex.”

“I wanted to stand up and run over there and ask him how can you chuckle laugh and giggle all the way to the end?” said Lopez. “People come and ask me how could you marry a man like that, and I say that is not the man I married.”

Referencing his demeanor throughout the trial, Nikia Lopez said she wanted to ask him, “How can you chuckle and laugh and giggle all the way to the end? The smirks, the snide looks he had on his face all the way to the end. These were your children.”

Deputy District Attorney Kyle Sutterley alleged at trial that Lopez got drunk following an argument with his girlfriend, fell asleep and ignited a blaze in his bed. The prosecutor said that Lopez, upon waking to find the condo ablaze around 3:15 a.m., went past the children’s bedrooms on his way down the stairs and punched out a first-floor window to try to escape the flames.

He then went back upstairs and started pounding on the walls, then passed out from the smoke at the top of the stairs, where firefighters later found him, Sutterley said.

According to the prosecutor, Cristos walked into his father’s burning bedroom, lied down on the floor and died of burns to more than 80% of his body. Isabella went into her brother’s room, lied down on the bottom bunk bed and “fortunately never woke up” after passing out due to smoke inhalation, Sutterley said.

Lopez’s attorney, Paul Neuharth Jr. argued during the trial there was no evidence a cigarette caused the deadly blaze and that a defective cell phone was a far more likely ignition source.

Neither cigarette butts, nor the phone, were found in the remnants of the blaze.

Sutterley said investigators located a drinking glass within the area where the fire started, which may have been used as a makeshift ashtray. Prosecutors say a similar glass filled with about 75 discarded cigarette butts was located in a trash can in the home’s garage. However, no cigarette butts were found inside the glass in the bedroom.

Neuharth told jurors there was no proof that a lit cigarette started the fire, with the only evidence of smoking inside the home coming from the defendant’s ex-wife, Nikia, who said she once witnessed him smoking marijuana in his bed.

Lopez told investigators he only smoked on his outside patio and never inside the house, particularly due to his son’s asthma.

Wayne Whitney, an investigator with the San Diego Fire Rescue Metro Arson Strike Team, testified last week that despite the lack of cigarette butts in the burned bedroom, he was able to make a “reasonable inference” that cigarettes sparked the fire, by way of Lopez’s alleged smoking habits.

Whitney conceded that the cell phone was a possible cause of the blaze, but said he didn’t believe it would have ignited the condo fire if it were under Lopez’s pillow, as a lack of oxygen would have smothered the blaze and kept it from spreading.

Sutterley said the burns Lopez sustained on his back, arms and particularly his hand were more consistent with holding a lit cigarette, rather than a cell phone igniting beneath his pillow, which Sutterley argued should have caused burns to Lopez’s head.

Neuharth emphasized that Whitney came to his conclusion despite any evidence that Lopez had smoked in the home that day, while on the other hand, cell phone records proved the phone was in the condo, though it’s unknown whether it was in Lopez’s bedroom.

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.

Smoke detectors in Lopez’s bedroom and one of the children’s rooms were unplugged or removed, according to Sutterley, who said Lopez had a 0.229 blood-alcohol content when blood was drawn at a hospital less than two hours after the fire.

Neuharth contested the idea that Lopez did not do whatever he could to try to save his children, telling the jury that the defendant went back upstairs and beat a hole in the wall in an attempt to get to the youngsters’ rooms amid thick smoke filling the condo. The attorney argued that had it not been for the timely arrival of firefighters, Lopez, too, would have died from smoke inhalation.

“What more can you ask of a parent than to give their life and if not for whatever matter of seconds it would have been or a minute before he was brought out and resuscitated, he would have been dead along with the children,” Neuharth said.

Sutterley argued Lopez’s first instinct was selfishness and self- preservation, as “he was so deep into a bottle of whiskey and a cigarette that he forgot (the children) were there or abandoned them on purpose. But either way, as a parent, your first thought is to save your children. Your first thought is to your kids. It’s not to yourself. It’s not to the front door. It’s to save your children.”

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