A series of financial setbacks left Wanda Dunn facing eviction from the house in Pasadena where her family had lived for generations.
Dunn, 53, told neighbors that she would rather die than leave.
Early Monday, the day of her expected eviction, firefighters pulled her body out of the house as it burned. She apparently had set it on fire before shooting herself in the head, authorities said.
"We knew it was going to happen," said Steve Brooks, who lived across the street. "It was nobody's fault; it was everybody's fault."
As Brooks watched the flames, he noticed that Dunn had left two of her plants on his porch, along with a note: "Please take good care of us or find us a good home." She also had left several inexpensive toys, along with the name and address of a charity organization.
On Sunday night, Dunn spent hours moving boxes and packing her car, said next-door neighbor Scott Harden. He knew about the foreclosure and eviction, and Dunn's suicide threat, so he "was on red alert."
About 5 a.m. the next morning, Harden said he smelled smoke and saw flames in Dunn's house in the 1000 block of North Wilson Avenue, and immediately called 911.
But Harden said he and other neighbors thought Dunn had already left. He said they were stunned to learn that she was still inside.
"When they brought her out, we were all really surprised," he said.
The suspected arson fire engulfed the living room and dining room, but firefighters were able to douse the flames within 15 minutes, said Pasadena Fire Marshall Mark Fasick. Firefighters found Dunn in bed in a back room, with a gun lying nearby.
Firefighters tried to revive Dunn and took her to Huntington Hospital, where she was declared dead, Fasick said.
A longtime friend of Dunn was living in her garage at the time of the fire but was unhurt, authorities said.
The stucco house and garage were crowded with newspapers, books and clothes, making it difficult for firefighters to make their way through, Fasick said.
The Los Angeles County coroner's office plans to perform an autopsy this week to determine if Dunn died from the gunshot wound, but Pasadena police Lt. John Dewar said that is the most likely cause and that the death is presumed to be a suicide.
"She was made aware of Monday's eviction," he said. "That may have been what precipitated the arson and death."
Police are still trying to determine the history of the house's ownership.
Neighbors said Dunn's grandparents owned the house before it was passed down to her parents and then to Dunn and her sister.
A few years ago, neighbors said, Dunn and her sister took out a loan on the house but couldn't repay it and had to sell.
The new owner, who let Dunn continue to live there and pay rent, lost the home to foreclosure in May, neighbors said. Washington Mutual bank was listed in property records as the current owner.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials showed up on Dunn's doorstep a few weeks ago and then again Friday to tell her that she had until Monday to pack up her stuff and go, neighbors said.
Though Dunn kept to herself and rarely participated in neighborhood events, she wasn't shy about her financial situation. One day a few weeks ago, she showed up on Brooks' doorstep with a stack of papers about her house and asked for help.
Brooks said he believed that Dunn had previously worked as a nurse, but that she had been unemployed for more than 10 years. He said she didn't have much money and often kept her house dark, except for one low-watt lightbulb. In the past, Brooks said he had helped mow Dunn's lawn and fix her water heater.
On Tuesday morning, yellow police tape was wrapped around the house and the windows were boarded up. Smoke had left black marks above the front door and flames had broken at least one window.
The woman living in the garage, Alicia Suarez, packed up some of her belongings and moved them into a storage area. Suarez said she had known Dunn for 30 years and that Dunn was "desperate."
"She would rather lose her life than lose her house," Suarez said.
The apparent suicide occurred just one week after a Porter Ranch man having financial problems shot and killed his wife, three children and mother-in-law before taking his own life.
Ken Kondo, a spokesman for the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, said the agency's crisis hotline recently has received numerous calls about housing, job and financial concerns.
He said people are encouraged to reach out to help friends and family during this time of economic uncertainty. If someone is feeling suicidal, he said, assistance is available at the county's 24-hour hotline at (800) 854-7771.
"The most important thing is to ask for help," he said.