San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hospital Arson Trial Off to Emotional Start

The trial began this week in the case of Juan Carlos Ledezma, the hospital worker accused of starting a fire in San José’s CalderónGuardiaHospital two years ago that took the lives of 19.

Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) agent Mikol Soto alleged during his testimony this week that Ledezma is a “megalomaniac” whose motive for lighting the fire in a third-floor hospital storage room on July 12, 2005, was a nostalgia for the recognition he received in helping control a smaller fire in the hospital’s library earlier that year.

The flames gutted the fourth and fifth floors of the oldest part of the hospital complex, where patients were trapped without emergency ramps or exits (TT, July 15, 2005). A series of flaws in the hospital’s fire code standards that have come to light since the disaster.

“How do I explain to Costa Rica and my family that there were no emergency ramps or stairs? How do I explain that there was no water pressure to put out the fire, that hospital workers weren’t around?” asked Alfonso Pérez during testimony. Pérez is the Mayor of the Caribbean-slope canton of Turrialba and the father of a 17-year-old basketball star who was recovering from having a tumor removed when he died in the fire.

Along with the state’s criminal case against Ledezma, Pérez has a civil case against the Costa Rican Social Security System (Caja) and Ledezma for $480,000, which he says he’ll give to nonprofit organizations if he wins. Pérez claims he hasn’t received the $77,000 settlement that the Caja agreed to pay victims’ families.

The Caja has paid other victims’ families, but Operations Manager Gabriela Murillo said she couldn’t comment on Pérez’s case because it is part of the trial.

Key witnesses yet to appear in the case are two hospital custodians who allegedly saw Ledezma walking away from the storage room where the fire began.

Soto said Ledezma had falsified his medical credentials in applying for his job as a patient assistant at the hospital. His alleged motive was to create a fire so he could be seen as a hero once again by putting it out and rescuing possible victims, Soto said.

Defense attorney Rodolfo Brenes asked why investigators didn’t look further into the possibility that the fire started because of an overheated ceiling lamp in the storage room, or a short circuit.

The trial is expected to last three months.


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