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4 Bodies Found in Apartment Gutted by Fire

September 07, 1996|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANYON COUNTRY — 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 deliberately set.

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

The fire, which authorities believe was started with a flammable liquid, burned the bodies beyond recognition and spread so quickly 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 also found in the same back bedroom. Police were awaiting autopsy results to confirm the identities.

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

Authorities 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.

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Neighbors said they heard loud arguing prior to 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 then 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 homicide detectives a note scribbled in black ink on a paper bag from a Hallmark card store. 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, Sheriff's Deputy Jim Gonzales of the arson/explosive detail said. "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 a stool. The refrigerator was a shell, its metal shelves melted and twisted. A half-burned video box lay on the floor.

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Neighbors gathered outside, remembering the children who had lived in apartment No. 201--a wide-eyed little girl and a 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.

"More recently the mother appeared," said Jaymie Thibault, who lives in one of the eight units in the building. "I have to assume she was there with her children and that the father was there too" at the time of the fire.

The fire was discovered by deputies patrolling the neighborhood. They joined residents who tried unsuccessfully to reach the second-floor apartment as it burned.

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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."

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

Another neighbor, Richard Jackson, who lives across the courtyard from the burning apartment, said he saw "orange in the two windows . . . I could see the flames break out."

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.

In February, six children and their mother perished in a blaze deliberately set in their Glendale apartment. Jorjik Avanesian told police he killed his wife and children because he was obsessed with her alleged infidelities and drug use. He is being held in Los Angeles County Jail pending trial.

The worst arson fire in Los Angeles County was in 1982, when 25 residents of the Dorothy Mae Apartment-Hotel died in a blaze set by a 21-year-old man in a dispute with his uncle who managed the building.

Times staff writer Jocelyn Stewart contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Tragic Blaze

Four people, including two young children in a crib, were found dead in a bedroom of a small Canyon Country apartment early Friday in what authorities suspect may have been a murder-suicide. Investigators are trying to determine whether the deaths may have been rooted in a domestic dispute between the dead couple, who were estranged.

HOW IT HAPPENED

1) Neighbors hear loud noises, including glass breaking, from 27325 Manzanita Lane in Canyon Country just after midnight Friday.

2) Patrolling deputies discover fire about 12:30 Friday morning.

3) Authorities believe someone might have deliberately set the fire by pouring flammable liquid in back bedroom and hallway.

4) A wall of flame inside the second-floor unit keeps deputies and residents from entering the apartment.

5) Firefighters find four bodies burned beyond recognition in one of the bedrooms. The dead include a mother and her two young children. A man's body was also found in the same room.

Source: Times staff

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