Landscaper Convicted in Slaying of Wheaton Client, Arson

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Montgomery County landscaper was convicted Tuesday of killing an 83-year-old woman by forcing his way into her Wheaton home, slamming her head repeatedly against furniture, dousing her with gasoline and setting her on fire.

Among the clues linking Ramon Alvarado, 33, to the crime: DNA lifted off a Marlboro cigarette that was found outside the victim's front door. Montgomery prosecutors said he discarded it just before going inside while carrying a gas can.

"He was smoking that cigarette," Laura Chase told Circuit Court jurors during closing arguments. "And he left the cigarette butt on the front stoop."

Jurors began deliberating late Monday and continued for about two hours Tuesday. They convicted Alvarado of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and arson. Testimony showed that he was paid $1,000 by his cousin, Jose Alvarado, to kill Lila Meizell. The cousin, who also did yardwork, received a check from Meizell earlier and added two zeros to it, then became worried he would get caught.

"We started out talking about the three great forces ruling the world, the great forces of stupidity, fear and greed. All three came together for Jose and Ramon Alvarado in November. It resulted in horror," Chase told jurors, paraphrasing Albert Einstein.

Jose Alvarado had pleaded guilty earlier to murder in the case. He testified against his cousin last week. Ramon Alvarado's attorney, Alan Drew, tried to cast additional responsibility on Jose Alvarado.

"I would suggest to you that greed, fear and stupidity doesn't apply to Ramon Alvarado," Drew said in his closing argument, picking up on Chase's theme. "Rather, it applies to Jose Alvarado [who] was the one who altered the check for $7,500. He was the one who feared he was going to get caught. And was the one stupid enough to think that he could get away with it."

Ramon Alvarado displayed little emotion as the verdict was read. Before being locked up, he had lived in a relative's house, sleeping on a bare mattress in a laundry room. Small, with angular features and heavy eyelids, he was called "El Garrobo" -- the Iguana -- by his friends. The Salvadoran native also is wanted by immigration officials, an indication that he entered the United States illegally and that he could be deported if he finishes a prison term in the United States.

The killing of Meizell, a kindly woman who was talking to her boyfriend on the phone when Ramon Alvarado barged in, shocked everyone connected to the case. An autopsy showed she had soot in her lungs, confirming she breathed in smoke before she died. She also had trauma wounds to her skull, neck and spinal cord and suffered multiple rib fractures.

Jose Alvarado testified that he met Meizell after posting a small card advertising yardwork services at a local Giant grocery store. He said he mowed her yard, and, Nov. 19, he and Ramon worked at her home, with Ramon cleaning the gutters.

That is when Meizell wrote a check for $75 to Jose Alvarado, who altered it to $7,500, cashed it, and bought a used car and a new computer. After hatching the murder plan, according to testimony, the cousins drove to Meizell's home in a Dodge minivan Nov. 26. They both walked to the front door. Jose Alvarado received another check, for $33, from Meizell and walked back to the minivan, while his cousin stayed behind, according to testimony.

When questioned last year by detectives, Jose Alvarado said he had seen his cousin smoking on Meizell's porch just before he went inside.

"Do you know what kind of cigarettes he smokes?" prosecutor Mary Herdman asked him in the trial last week.

"Marlboro, red," Jose Alvarado said.

Jose Alvarado also told jurors that he saw his cousin come running out of Meizell's house with his legs on fire. When Ramon Alvarado was later questioned by detectives, he had burns on his legs.

Drew, the defense attorney, told jurors that at one point his client told police that he fell from a tree while operating a chain saw and suggested that the leg burns could have come from heated elements on the chain saw. Drew also said the cigarette could have been left by Ramon Alvarado on a previous visit to the house, such as Nov. 19.

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