A woman accused of igniting a deadly bakery fire in Gretna last month is facing murder charges after authorities said she torched her business in a scheme to collect insurance proceeds.
Lesly Martinez, owner of Lesly’s Bakery on Whitney Avenue, was severely burned in a gasoline-fueled explosion that fatally injured her friend, Afi Marta Alvarado-Lopez, a woman authorities said was living in the country without legal permission.
Alvarado-Lopez, 40, received burns to 70 percent of her body and died several days after the fire.
“Our suspicions are that the motivating factor was an intent to collect on insurance proceeds as well as her desire to relocate,” Brant Thompson, deputy chief of the state Fire Marshal’s Office, said of Martinez. “It took a few days before the pieces of the puzzle began to reveal themselves.”
Martinez, 41, is expected to recover and be taken into custody upon her release from the Baton Rouge General Medical Center burn unit.
“As soon as she’s able to be released, they will book her on our warrant and we will pick her up from there and bring her back,”Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson said.
Martinez faces counts of second-degree murder and aggravated arson.
Martinez’s impending arrest came as a surprise to Francisco Luciano, who owns a barber shop adjacent to the bakery that was damaged in the blaze and has not yet reopened.
“I wouldn’t think she would do that,” Luciano said. “She was always friendly with us, like normal.”
State and local investigators said Wednesday they had uncovered persuasive evidence the fire was intentionally set, including statements from a woman who claimed she had been solicited to participate in the scheme.
“Fortunately, the officers were right on the scene and we were able to get some witnesses who did come forward to provide us with some information,” Lawson said. “We had an individual that advised us that there was a little more to it than a fire.”
The June 21 blaze aroused suspicion among investigators even before the flames were extinguished. The stench of gasoline filled the air, authorities said, and the front doors of the shop had been blasted into the parking lot by an explosion that seemed unusually potent.
“We see that with natural gas that may build up,” Thompson said. “But most of this facility was electric, so that was immediately suspect.”
Firefighters responding to the alarm at 2:12 a.m. found flames shooting through the bakery’s roof, said Fire Chief Mike Labruzza of the David Crockett Volunteer Fire Company.
It took several days for investigators to determine the full impact of the arson, Thompson said, in part because Martinez and Alvarado-Lopez fled the bakery and did not immediately seek medical attention despite their serious conditions.
When they finally did go to the hospital, they gave aliases and false stories about how they were burned, information Thompson said was reported to the Fire Marshal’s Office.
“State law requires that treating facilities supply our office with a burn injury report on all significant injuries that occur,” Thompson said. “The injuries to both ladies were significant.”
The women eventually were both transported to the burn unit in Baton Rouge, where Thompson said they “pretended as though they didn’t know one another … even though medical staff suspected there might be some connection.”
Alvarado-Lopez was too badly wounded to be interviewed by law enforcement before she died June 29, court filings show. Martinez, however, gave police a false name and told a detective she was burned at a barbecue “at an unknown location in Westwego,” according to court filings.
She later acknowledged the burns stemmed from the bakery fire, but claimed she did not know what caused the explosion.
“Lesly stated that she and Marta were baking bread and cookies when a fire started inside the bakery and then an explosion occurred,” investigators wrote in an affidavit. “Lesly advised that both she and Marta sustained burns from the fire and were scared so they fled the scene” and went to Martinez’s home at 1406 Stephen St.
Lawson said investigators searched the residence and found “burnt clothing, skin and blood.”
Patricia Lazo, a friend of the women, told authorities she had been approached weeks before the fire and asked to help burn down the bakery, the affidavit says.
“Patricia advised that she told Marta not to get involved with that,” the affidavit says. “Patricia also stated that she believed that Marta and Lesly were responsible for the bakery fire after learning of their injuries.”
Lazo told detectives she had gone to Martinez’s home hours after the bakery fire to check on her. When she arrived, she found both women in the home with severe burns and saw Martinez’s son washing black soot and ash off the stairwell to the upstairs bedroom.
Lazo said she urged Martinez to go to the hospital for her injuries but she initially refused, the affidavit says.
Several details of the arson investigation emerged in an affidavit for a search warrant that detectives filed in Baton Rouge this week in order to confiscate Martinez’s cellphone. The authorities said she had been using the phone from the hospital “to send text messages and make phone calls about the incident.”