SAN DIEGO — The father of two children who died in a Rancho Bernardo condominium fire fell asleep while drunk with a lit cigarette in his hand and then abandoned his kids to try and save himself, a prosecutor said Tuesday, while a defense attorney told jurors that a defective cell phone was a far more likely ignition source.
Jurors heard final summations, then began deliberating the charges against Henry Lopez, 39, who is charged in the Oct. 28, 2017, deaths of his 7- year-old daughter Isabella and 10-year-old son Cristos. He faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment and reckless fire starting.
Deputy District Attorney Kyle Sutterley alleges that Lopez got drunk following an argument with his girlfriend, fell asleep and ignited a blaze in his bed. The prosecutor alleges 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 and 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, laid down on the floor and died of burns to more than 80 percent of his body. 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 responsibility to care for their children, a responsibility to protect their children, and if need be, to sacrifice themselves for their children. And Henry Lopez, on Oct. 28, 2017, he failed his children, and as a result, one of them burned to death, and one of them went to sleep and never woke up," Sutterley said in his closing argument.
Defense attorney Paul Neuharth Jr. alleges it was more likely that his client's iPhone 6 caused the blaze while it was charging beneath Lopez's pillow.
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 full of around 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 fire, 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 no evidence that Lopez 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 and save his children, telling the jury that the defendant went back upstairs and beat a hole in the wall in 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."