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Woman Found Dead in Fire at Fortified House : Fatality: Victim apparently set blaze, officials say. Neighbors had objected to the extreme security measures she had taken with her husband, who died the day before the fire.

March 07, 1994|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taking a stand against what they saw as a violent world, Billy and Fyrn Davis turned their two-story stucco house into a veritable fortress bristling with video monitors and infrared alarms.

They installed barred windows and erected a spiked fence laced with razor wire. More than two dozen 500-watt spotlights illuminated the property at night, set off by hair-trigger sensors. For a while--until authorities ordered them removed--lasers encircled the grounds to trip up the intruders the couple envisioned in the darkness.

Neighbors saw them as unnerving eccentrics and complained that the over-the-top security measures gave their area a bad name. But the home drew widespread attention from the media, which portrayed this Pico Rivera area couple as symbolic of the modern-day fear of crime.

In the end, the fortress could not save Billy and Fyrn Davis from the ravages of illness and, apparently, despair. In fact, neighbors said, all the locks and barricades delayed firefighters for half an hour when they responded to a report of a fire at the home during the weekend.

After they finally pried through a security gate and two heavily locked doors early Saturday morning, firefighters found the badly burned body of a woman in the living room. Although her name had not been officially released as of Sunday evening, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detective said investigators believe the victim was 68-year-old Fyrn Davis--and that she apparently set the fire by lighting newspapers covered with motor oil.

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The day before, her 31-year-old husband died at Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier, where he was admitted Feb. 5, a hospital official said. The hospital would not release the cause of death, but a family acquaintance said Billy Davis suffered from a pancreatic disease.

Although an investigation into the fire victim's death is continuing, a preliminary inquiry has not turned up any evidence of foul play, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Frank Gonzales.

News of the two deaths stunned neighbors in the unincorporated area alongside the 605 Freeway, where the Davises moved about five years ago.

"I feared for them before because I wondered, what if a fire came?" said Esther Fernandez, standing within a stone's throw of the bars and locks surrounding the Davis home. "Them caged like that--how could they get out?"

Indeed, firefighters responding to a call at 3:56 a.m. Saturday had to break through eight deadbolt locks on three doors to get inside the house.

The Davises' preoccupation with security had earned them notoriety, first in their neighborhood and then beyond. Their home was mentioned in local media reports and in an August, 1993, Time magazine article titled "Danger in the Safety Zone: As violence spreads into small towns, many Americans barricade themselves."

Some neighbors complained that the bizarre yard damaged property values of surrounding homes. And the home generated more controversy when authorities declared some of the precautions illegal: The spiked fence extended onto county property, the hardware for the laser beams protruded above height limits and the spotlights were erected without a permit.

Confronted with zoning restrictions, the Davises removed some of the security devices last year, dismantling some poles and the expensive laser alarm system.

"It was still a fortress, but it didn't have the bells going off, and the lights," said Billy Davis' former attorney, Neil J. Falley.

Of his former clients, he said: "I just think they were different people."

The Davises came to Los Angeles County from Corning, Calif., a tiny town of 6,000 where Fyrn Davis was well-known. She and her first husband built up a major truck stop, gas station and restaurant near Interstate 5. She left her second husband, a prosperous rancher, for Davis.

Neighbors said the Davises were almost hermit-like, though Billy Davis sometimes patrolled streets in his car, with only its parking lights on, at 2 or 3 in the morning. The concern over security bewildered neighbors, who called the area relatively safe.

"I think that something happened to them in the past, and they got fearful," said Fernandez, who lives next door to the Davis house. Maybe something ugly happened to them."

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this story.

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