'I Was Tempted by Demons,' Suspect Says

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Forty-eight hours after he had allegedly beaten and burned to death 83-year-old Lila Meizell, Ramon Alvarado put on his new white leather shoes and headed to La Frontera, a Mexican-style cantina at the edge of a Montgomery County strip mall.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and Alvarado had spent much of the afternoon brooding, hiding the burns on his legs from his housemates. Now he was ready to unwind. His pockets were loaded with cash.

A 32-year-old layabout who had come to the United States from El Salvador a decade earlier, Alvarado lived in the basement of his aunt's house, where he slept on a bare mattress in the laundry room next to the boiler. Small and slight of build, with angular features and heavy eyelids, his friends called him "El Garrobo" -- the Iguana. Soon he was buying Miller Lite and shots all around.

Where had the money come from? Alvarado was usually quiet and always broke, but that night he had a newfound swagger. "He was paying for everyone," said Joel Guevara, who was renting the room next to Alvarado's. "But there was something weird about him."

While Alvarado continued drinking, Guevara returned home and went to sleep. He awoke to police dragging him out of bed. Officers were rifling through the house, and when Guevara saw police dogs sniffing around the property, he assumed that his housemates were in trouble for drugs. "I thought, 'So that's where they got the money,' " he said.

But the dogs were following a scent trail of gasoline into Alvarado's room. As police led Alvarado away in handcuffs, an officer took Guevara aside and explained that Alvarado, his cousin Jose Antonio Alvarado and Jose's wife, Ana Rodas, were suspected in the slaying of the kindly elderly woman, whom Jose referred to as "la viejita" (the little old lady) or "la abuelita" (the little grandmother).

"She used to give them sodas and drinks in the summertime and always an extra tip," said Guevara, who no longer lives in the Alvarado home. He let out a deep sigh. "It's sickening."

Court records show that the Alvarados have no criminal convictions. Jose Alvarado and Rodas, both facing the death penalty on first-degree murder charges, were hardworking and meek, family and friends said, with two children at home, Darwin, 13, and David, 10. The men worked as gardeners for Lila Meizell. But then Jose Alvarado stole from her and turned to his wife and cousin for help covering up the crime.

In one afternoon, they allegedly planned and carried out a lurid murder scheme as ill-conceived as it was cruel.

* * *

"I lost my head," said Jose Alvarado, speaking from a pay phone last week inside the Montgomery County jail. "I don't know what to say. It just happened suddenly. I was tempted by demons."

Jose Antonio Alvarado, "Tony" to his friends and family, came to the United States 14 years ago from the Salvadoran city of San Miguel, according to his mother, Maria Alvarado. Friends believe he crossed the border illegally, but like his wife, his cousin Ramon and many Salvadoran and Central American immigrants in the United States, he secured temporary protected status, a form of conditional residency widely granted after Hurricane Mitch, that allowed him to work and live in the United States legally.

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