LAWRENCEVILLE — Joseph Perez told investigators he was assisting in the cooking and washing of methamphetamine at a Lilburn house Feb. 17 when he heard an explosion.
Perez whisked his cousin, Neibi Brito, outside the home to safety, though her three children remained upstairs, and began fighting the flames with a garden hose. The only other adult inside, Brito’s boyfriend Ivan Gonzalez, fled the scene immediately, Perez told authorities, according to testimony Wednesday.
Perez, charged with trafficking meth in the fire that killed Brito’s three children, told investigators he was an “assistant” in Gonzalez’s meth operation on Spring Mill Drive, a Gwinnett police detective testified in a probable cause hearing that shed new light on the tragedy.
Perez told police that Brito, his cousin by marriage, had stepped outside to discard some trash seconds before chemicals ignited, while he was in the kitchen near a stove containing a pot of brown, crusty liquid meth.
“He heard a loud explosion and the house became engulfed in flames,” said the undercover detective, whose name is being withheld at the request of prosecutors.
Perez, 30, who altered his story several times, was arrested last week in College Park, the detective said. In the home, investigators found a handgun registered to Perez and paperwork showing the weapon was bought Jan. 2 at a Bass Pro Shops store.
Investigators found several bins in a back utility closet still wet with acetone — a chemical used in the “washing” process that turns brown liquid meth crystal clear — where they believe the fire had originated.
Perez suffered burns to his nose, ears, arms and face, the detective said. By Wednesday, the facial injuries seemed to have healed, as Perez sat through the hearing and posed a question via his attorney, Robert Greenwald.
Greenwald argued that no evidence proved his client possessed any amount of meth, let alone trafficked it.
Lindsay Gardner, assistant district attorney, countered that a sufficient link was established between Perez and the manufacturing of drugs.
“By his own admittance, (Perez) was inside when the fire broke out,” she said.
Magistrate Judge Valerie Elbaz Head found evidence to bind charges of trafficking methamphetamine against Perez to Superior Court. He remains jailed without bond.
The detective testified that more than nine pounds of liquid meth was recovered throughout the property, from a cooler in the garage to the pot on the kitchen stove. Investigators also found about one pound of finished product in the home, along with $192,000 in the walls. Police believe about four additional pounds were incinerated in the fire.
Multiple pieces of evidence are being analyzed at the GBI’s crime lab for Brito and Perez’s fingerprints. She and Gonzalez were the only adults living in the home, she told investigators. The detective said Wednesday that Brito was leasing the home from an owner who lives out of state.
Authorities believe Gonzalez — who left the country voluntarily after a 2003 run-in with immigration officials — could have fled the fire scene for his native Mexico.
Gonzalez is the only suspect charged with murder and arson in the incident. The detective said Wednesday he remains at large.
Perez was born in Chicago and had several known addresses at the time of his arrest, according to police and court records.
The children — Ivan Guevara Brito, 3, Isaac Guevara Brito, 4, and Stacy Brito Pina, 18 months — were found on the home’s second floor, suffering from burns and smoke inhalation. Their funeral was held in Dalton last week.