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Skeleton Found in Chimney a Mystery

CALIFORNIA

Investigators believe the body of a teenage male had been stuck in the abandoned building for two years.

March 29, 2005|Solomon Moore and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

The security guard didn't believe his 11-year-old daughter at first.

Having just peered down a chimney stack while fetching a soccer ball that she had tossed onto the roof of an abandoned halfway house in South Los Angeles, Nelly Melgoza ran to her father breathless, saying she had seen a human skull.

As Thursday night wore on, Nelly continued to insist that she had seen human remains.

"I know I seen a skull," she told her father, Jose Melgoza.

So the next day, they went back on the roof and Melgoza shined a flashlight down the smokestack. "You could see the top of the head. It was tilted so I could see the eye sockets and the nose."

The discovery at 89th and Main streets marked the beginning of a mystery that police are just now beginning to unravel.

Forensic anthropologists were working Monday in an attempt to identify the body, which appeared to be that of a male African American teenager who stood 5 feet to 5 feet, 3 inches tall. The body had been there for about two years, coroners said, which coincides with when the halfway house for drug addicts and ex-prisoners was closed.

When the case broke, detectives were full of questions. Was the boy murdered and stuffed in the chimney? Did he crawl in by mistake and get stuck? Was he trying to break in? Was he a drug patient who got stuck trying to escape unnoticed?

On Monday, coroners and police detectives said their preliminary investigation suggested the death was accidental.

"He seemed to get stuck and couldn't climb out," said Det. Sal LaBarbera.

"The cause of death is unknown," added Lt. Fred Corral, a coroner's investigator. "But there are no signs of trauma or foul play."

Also unclear is how a body could have decomposed above a busy street corner without anyone noticing.

Detectives are now reviewing 60 missing-person files in an effort to find a match with the body.

Jessica Chinchilla, 25, who works as a security guard at the building, and said she saw coroners extracting the remains from the fireplace Friday. She said the body was completely decomposed: "Just bones. No flesh. Nothing." Chinchilla also saw a pair of charred jeans and a pair of briefs. Officials were trying to determine whether the burns occurred because someone started a fire in the fireplace at the bottom of the chimney.

Neighbors said the building has been abandoned for about two years but that homeless people and drug users still use the structure from time to time. On Monday, several people appeared to be living in one of the building's doorways, human feces littered the sidewalk and grass was ankle-high along the curb. Mattresses, discarded furniture, condom wrappers and other refuse was scattered along 89th Street.

But resident Ruben Ibarra said the area looked worse two months ago, before the city came to collect most of the rubbish.

According to the California Department of State, a firm named WBP Leasing Inc., a Houston-based company, bought the former halfway house in January 2004.

The building is a linoleum-tiled warren of spartan rooms where as many as 200 people once lived. The furniture is all gone now, except for a few file cabinets full of furlough records and notes from group therapy sessions.

Melgoza said that he wasn't working at the facility when it closed down, but that neighbors had told him that they didn't want the halfway house on their street any longer.

"There was too much drug selling," he said. Melgoza said that until security was stepped up, thieves broke into the building and stole scrap metal and furniture.

Craig Harvey, chief of operations for the Los Angeles County coroner's office, said that about 40 sets of bones are found annually in Los Angeles, but that "it is very rare to find a body in a chimney."

Coroners determined the gender of the body by examining the pelvis and the age by inspecting the collarbone, Harvey said. The skull helped investigators identify the body's ethnicity, he said.

Forensic anthropologists hope to determine what kind of injuries the victim sustained. One lingering question is whether the teenager screamed for help or was unable to.

A serious injury could have prevented him from seeking help. On the other hand, his screams could have gone unheard in the vast and empty building.

A business owner across the street, who identified himself as Butch, complained that the discovery of the body was a symptom of wider city neglect.

He said that he continually calls the city to pick up trash and check on the vacant building, which continues to attract homeless people.

"It shouldn't take this to get their attention," he said. "This is a filthy hole down here."

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