SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico--A Dupont Plaza Hotel maintenance worker was arrested yesterday and charged with 96 counts of murder for the New Year's Eve fire at the posh hotel.
The hotel worker, Hector Escudero Aponte, was the first person arrested in the case, but Justice Secretary Hector Rivera Cruz said officials believed he had not acted alone.
Rivera Cruz said in a statement that Escudero Aponte was charged with "setting fire to the Dupont Plaza Hotel on New Year's Eve, in agreement with others." But he said the investigation was continuing and therefor he could provide no further information.
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, a Teamsters member, went to the hotel about 2 p.m. December 31 and set the fire shortly after a union meeting broke up. The fire, which killed 96 people and injured about 140 people, 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 Teamsters union--which had planned a strike for midnight New Year's Eve--or hotel management or non-Teamster employees.
Teamsters officials have denied any involvement with the fire.
Jorge Farinacci Garcia, a union lawyer from Puerto Rico, told reporters in Hartford, Conn., he does not know the man arrested in the hotel fire.
He said the Teamsters worked with the government in investigating the hotel fire, which he called "an individual act of a person in the hotel," not an act by the union.
A secretary to Duke Zeller, Teamsters spokesman in Washington, said the union had no comment on the arrest.
Federal officials accused Escudero Aponte of setting the fire, while charges of murder and arson were filed in San Juan's local district court.
The FBI claimed Escudero Aponte confessed to his role in the fire. He was charged before U.S. Magistrate Justo Arenas with having "maliciously damaged and destroyed by means of a fire" the 22-story 439-room hotel.
The Dupont Plaza was evacuated during the fire and has stood vacant since. A 10-foothigh fence was erected around the site last week to protect evidence.
Judge Carlos Rivera Martinez of the local court set bail at $2 million. Escudero Aponte was transferred to the Rio Piedras State Penitentiary in the San Juan metropolitan area. Arenas ordered him held without bail until Friday and set a hearing for January 20.