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Four Victims Found in Burned Apartment

Fire: Two children in a crib are among victims. All may have died in a murder-suicide, officials say.

September 07, 1996|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what authorities suspect may have been a murder-suicide, four people--including two young children in a crib--were found dead inside the bedroom of a Canyon Country apartment early Friday after an explosive blaze that appeared to have been deliberately set.

"There was literally fire from the floor to the ceiling," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Glen Goulet.

The fire, which authorities believe was started with a flammable liquid, burned the bodies beyond recognition and spread so quickly that it was "like a bomb going off," Goulet said.

Residents of the Park Sierra complex said they believe the dead include a young mother and her two children who might have been planning to move away from the children's father. A man's body was found in the same back bedroom.

Police were awaiting autopsy results to confirm their identities.

Sheriff's detectives questioned two men, including a teenager who lived in the two-bedroom apartment, but they are not considered suspects, said Det. Gil Carrillo. The men were not in the apartment at the time of the fire, authorities said.

Officials said they are investigating whether the deaths were rooted in a domestic dispute between the mother and father of the children. The mother had recently moved into the apartment but may have been planning to leave, neighbors said.

*

Neighbors said they heard loud arguing before the 12:23 a.m. blaze. Sheriff's deputies said they had been called two weeks ago to settle domestic problems at the apartment on Manzanita Lane. Deputies at the time took a 33-year-old man in for a three-day psychiatric evaluation.

Carrillo, however, could not confirm whether that was the same man who died in the fire. "Everything is so preliminary," Carrillo said. "An awful lot is pending on the autopsy."

But authorities have key evidence: A neighbor gave detectives a note scribbled on a paper bag. Detectives refused to discuss the note but a deputy who saw it said it will "shut the case."

Fire investigators could detect the remains of a flammable liquid poured in the apartment hallway and inside the back bedroom, said Sheriff's Deputy Jim Gonzales. "It had an odor indicative of gasoline, but we won't know that for a while," he said.

*

Arson and homicide investigators combed the charred, ash-filled apartment Friday morning. Debris covered the floors, and springs from a couch were scattered about the living room floor, along with the blackened remains of a table and stool. The refrigerator was a shell, its metal shelves melted and twisted.

Neighbors gathered outside, remembering the children who had lived in Apt. 201--a wide-eyed little girl and a baby boy who was just learning to walk.

"I saw the little girl in the pool on Labor Day," said Indiana Rivera, a tenant in the building. "I was really drawn to her because she was signing to her father. She was very gregarious and very animated."

Neighbors said three men and the children had lived in the apartment before the woman moved in. The men--all of whom were hearing-impaired--were friendly, neighbors said.

The fire was discovered by deputies patrolling the neighborhood. They joined residents who tried unsuccessfully to reach the second-floor apartment as it burned. Other neighbors ran door to door, warning tenants to get out of their apartments.

"We woke up to booming," said Albert Garcia, whose garage is below the blackened apartment. "It was very scary."

Thibault said: "I wasn't sure for a moment there if it was going to take the whole building down."

Los Angeles County Fire Department investigator Tom Jones said the fire was extinguished in about 20 minutes--too late to save anyone inside.

"These days everything is made of plastic--built to burn," he said.

Times staff writer Jocelyn Stewart contributed to this story.

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