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Homeless woman is set ablaze in Van Nuys

Neighbors are stunned by the apparently random attack on the victim, a fixture in the community. A suspect is in custody.

December 27, 2012|By Ashley Powers, Bob Pool and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • Phillip Furtado lights a candle to pay his respects to a homeless woman who was set on fire while sleeping on the bus bench.
Phillip Furtado lights a candle to pay his respects to a homeless woman who… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

The homeless woman was a familiar presence at the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way. Employees at the nearby businesses knew her routine, if not her name.

Mornings, she bought a pack of Grand Prix cigarettes — always with exact change — at the United Oil gas station. Nights, she curled up on a bus bench outside the 24-hour Walgreens and tried to fall asleep.

The stop on line 761 has three seats, some graffiti and a gold-and-turquoise advertisement for a maker of eyeglasses. It could not have made for a comfortable bed.

That's where police found the woman about 1 a.m. Thursday, doused in a flammable liquid and set ablaze. She was whisked to a hospital, where she remains in critical condition. The seemingly random attack shocked even LAPD veterans, who said they were trying to make sense of it.

LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese said it was unclear whether the suspect, Dennis Petillo, 24, even talked to the woman before he allegedly set her ablaze.

"There was no incident or dispute or clear motivation for this horrific attack. He did not know his victim. It defies explanation," Albanese said. "He is not of sound mind.... The motive is mental illness."

Police have not released the victim's name, but area residents said she is Flo Parker. She was also known as Violet: a 5-foot-tall woman in her 60s with dirty blond hair and a time-worn face.

But for much of Thursday, her identity was secondary. Violet had become a symbol to some residents of both the dangers that face the homeless and the depths of human cruelty.

"This is a hate crime as far as I'm concerned. All this woman did was try to sit out here and get warm," said Barbara Weiss, 57, who works for a company that provides transportation to the handicapped.

Had she seen Violet before?

"I probably have," she said. "I just don't know."

Witness Erickson Ipina told reporters that he watched in horror as the attack unfolded in Thursday's wee hours. A man walked out of the Walgreens with what appeared to be rubbing alcohol, he said.

"He just poured it all over the old lady," Ipina said. "Then he threw the match on her and started running."

Ipina said he gave chase. "Hey, stop right there!" he yelled. "Stop right there!" But the man kept running.

"I pulled out my cellphone and called 911, and then he just turned back on me and pulled out a knife," said Ipina, whose account was confirmed by the LAPD.

Police arrested Petillo on suspicion of attempted murder. Since 2008, he has pleaded guilty twice to charges related to vehicle theft. The second time, he was sentenced to two years in prison.

The homeless face a number of perils, which is why many use a sort of buddy system, said Marcus Butler, associate director of security at the Midnight Mission, which provides services on skid row. But most of the crimes they face are predatory, such as one man trying to swipe another's disability check.

Violent crimes, particularly between strangers, are rare, Butler said. Initial reports of Thursday's assault reminded him of the 2008 slaying of John McGraham, who was set ablaze in the Mid-Wilshire district.

"I thought, oh man, what's the world coming to?" Butler said.

In Van Nuys, it was unclear how long Violet had been homeless or what drove her to the streets. People mostly remembered her in flashes — how she gave one man a kind gaze, how she accepted a blanket from another.

A woman of routines, she usually spent Wednesday and Thursday afternoons at the Central Lutheran Church, which offers free lunch. Groundskeeper William Gonzalez has known Violet for at least seven years. The unassuming woman mentioned that she'd once been a nurse and had two children, he said.

"She never had a bad word for anyone," he said. "She smiles and says, 'God bless you' to you. She never, ever asked for change."

The church minister, Jennifer Burgos, said Violet's absence was felt deeply at lunch, where a volunteer offered a prayer in her honor.

"There was a lot of shock, horror and tears," Burgos said. "It touched a lot of people. They were her friends."

Meanwhile, as news of the attack spread, strangers transformed the bus stop into a sort of memorial.

Robyn Turkus and her housemates ducked into the Walgreens, where Petillo allegedly bought the flammable liquid. They emerged with potted poinsettias and religious candles.

Turkus, 48, helps run a sober-living home nearby, where she said she found refuge after a stint in prison on drug charges and a period of sleeping next to a freeway. She said she could imagine how Violet felt before she was attacked.

"You're already sleeping with one eye open. You're cold, you're hungry," she said.

She and her housemates placed the candles on the bench, its advertisement partly cracked and blackened, giving it the appearance of lizard skin. They lighted the candles. Then they waved signs, which said "Honk For Violet."

Times staff writers Adolfo Flores and Andrew Blankstein and photographer Irfan Khan contributed to this report.

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