LOS ANGELES — For more than 10 years, the homeless woman slept on the same plastic bus stop bench at a busy intersection in the San Fernando Valley, no matter how cold it was or if it was raining.
The 67-year-old, described by one church volunteer who saw her regularly as the “sweetest lady on the street,” was nestled in her regular spot early Thursday when the unthinkable happened: A man came out of a nearby drug store, doused her with a flammable liquid and set her ablaze.
She was taken to a hospital, where she was listed in critical condition.
Witness Erickson Ipina called emergency services, and police arrested Dennis Petillo, 24, a short time later. He was booked for investigation of attempted murder and was held on $500,000 bail. It wasn’t immediately known if he had retained an attorney.
“He just poured it all over the old lady,” Ipina told reporters at the scene. “Then he threw the match on her and started running.”
Police provided no possible motive and released no details on Petillo. The victim’s name also was withheld.
LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese told the Los Angeles Times it was unclear whether Petillo spoke to the woman before he allegedly set her ablaze.
“There was no incident or dispute or clear motivation for this horrific attack. He did not know his victim. It defies explanation,” Albanese said. “He is not of sound mind. ... The motive is mental illness.”
The attack shocked nearby residents, and later Thursday about a dozen people held vigil around the charred bench, urging motorists to honk their horns in support of homeless rights. One sign placed on the bench read, “Our Prayers to Violet,” believed to be the victim’s first name.
Tej Deol, 31, who resides at a nearby sober living house, said the woman made the bench her home and often could be found sleeping there after sundown. He said he saw her Christmas Eve, getting ready to eat some soup.
“I told her, ‘Merry Christmas and happy New Year,’ and she said she was doing good,” Deol said. “She was so kind. She was happy to have someone talk to her.”
Thursday’s incident was at least the third in Los Angeles County since October where people were set on fire. — AP