A 27-year-old man accused of setting a fire that killed his parents and sister at the family’s Logan Heights home last fall was ordered Thursday to stand trial on murder and arson charges.
Wilber Romero is charged in the Oct. 13, 2019, deaths of his father, Jose Antonio Romero, 44; his mother, Nicalasa “Nico” Maya-Romero, 46, and his 21-year-old sister, Iris Romero.
The defendant’s father was found dead inside the home at 3114 Clay Ave., while his mother and sister died at a hospital.
His other sister, Wendy, and his younger brother, Angel, were injured in the pre-dawn fire. Bystanders pulled Wendy out of the home, while Angel escaped through a window.
Prosecutors allege that after starting the fire about 4:30 a.m., Wilber Romero slipped out of a side door with the family dog and escaped the fire unharmed.
San Diego police Detective Gary Phillips testified that a lighter was found on the defendant that day, and that he was found unscathed, without any burns or soot on his clothing or body.
Testimony from a two-day preliminary hearing indicated the fire originated in the defendant’s bed in the southeast section of the home, but the exact cause of the fire was a point of contention.
Special Agent Matthew Beals, a fire investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified that he examined the burn patterns and fire damage to the home and ruled out all potential electrical ignition sources as the cause of the blaze, except for a lithium-ion battery that was found on Romero’s bed.
However, Beals testified that fires caused by an internal failure of lithium-ion batteries are “very rare” and said the damage surrounding the battery was not consistent with it being the cause of the fire.
Romero’s attorney, Neil Besse, argued that even if one ruled out the battery theory, there was a “paucity of evidence” suggesting his client’s involvement with the fire, and argued much of the prosecution’s case relied on hearsay statements and assumptions regarding Romero’s intent and behavior.
Police witnesses testified Wednesday that the surviving family members told investigators that Wilber had a history of setting fire to portions of the home or objects surrounding the residence.
Angel Romero told a San Diego police investigator that Wilber set fire to the house’s roof a few weeks prior to the fatal blaze, and had set fires on and around the house on about a dozen prior occasions, according to SDPD Detective James Barrera. Angel also allegedly told Barrera that his brother had previously talked about “burning the house down and burning everybody in it” and had shot at the house with a rife on one occasion.
SDPD Detective Marco Perez testified that he interviewed Wendy Romero, who said that Wilber had previously set fire to plants and a trash can outside the home, and also burned his clothes in a barbecue on one occasion.
During the Oct. 13 blaze, Wendy said she saw Wilber outside the home running back and forth in the street yelling at her to open the door, Perez testified. She told Perez that she screamed for him to help her and he “ignored her” and ran down the street toward a nearby park, according to Perez’s testimony.
Besse said the fires referenced by his client’s brother are “unsubstantiated” and said Wendy’s statements regarding Wilber’s behavior on the street did not indicate malicious intent on his part.
Besse suggested those statements were presented to imply Romero fled the house after setting it ablaze, or left the scene of the fire without any concern for his family, “as if there is some proper or improper way to panic when you realize your house is on fire.”
He also alleged there were statements from neighbors suggesting Wilber was seen outside the burning home trying to put out the blaze with a hose.
Romero was not booked into custody on suspicion of murder until Oct. 18.
Prior to his arrest, Romero appeared in local television news interviews denying any involvement with the fire and stating he tried to save his family, but was forced to save himself.
Regarding allegations of his involvement, he said in one interview, “You can lock me up, but you’re not going to take me in to say this, `I did it.’ I’m not going to say it because I know I didn’t do it.”
Romero remains in custody without bail. He’s due back in court Nov. 5 for a status conference.
— City News Service