LOS ANGELES — For more than 10 years, the homeless woman slept on the same plastic bus stop bench at a busy intersection in the San Fernando Valley, no matter how cold it was or if it was raining.
The 67-year-old, described by one church volunteer who saw her regularly as the “sweetest lady on the street,” was nestled in her regular spot early Thursday when the unthinkable happened: A man came out of a nearby drug store, doused her with a flammable liquid and set her ablaze.
She was taken to a hospital, where she was listed in critical condition.
Witness Erickson Ipina called emergency services, and police arrested Dennis Petillo, 24, a short time later. He was booked for investigation of attempted murder and was held on $500,000 bail. It wasn’t immediately known if he had retained an attorney.
“He just poured it all over the old lady,” Ipina told reporters at the scene. “Then he threw the match on her and started running.”
Police provided no possible motive and released no details on Petillo. The victim’s name also was withheld.
LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese told the Los Angeles Times it was unclear whether Petillo spoke 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.”
The attack shocked nearby residents, and later Thursday about a dozen people held vigil around the charred bench, urging motorists to honk their horns in support of homeless rights. One sign placed on the bench read, “Our Prayers to Violet,” believed to be the victim’s first name.
Tej Deol, 31, who resides at a nearby sober living house, said the woman made the bench her home and often could be found sleeping there after sundown. He said he saw her Christmas Eve, getting ready to eat some soup.
“I told her, ‘Merry Christmas and happy New Year,’ and she said she was doing good,” Deol said. “She was so kind. She was happy to have someone talk to her.”
Thursday’s incident was at least the third in Los Angeles County since October where people were set on fire.
Last week, a 55-year-old man was seriously injured when he was torched as he slept outside a doughnut shop in Norwalk. Two months earlier, Long Beach police said Jacob Timothy Lagarde, 27, threw a lit Molotov cocktail at a man who had been waiting for his father outside a store. Lagarde has since been charged with attempted murder and five other counts.
Los Angeles police are investigating whether Petillo might be tied to any other similar crimes, but at this point detectives don’t believe he is, Cmdr. Andrew Smith said.
As the number of flowers and candles around the scorched bench grew Thursday, people who knew the victim tried to comprehend why a woman who seemed so benign could be so viciously attacked.
Robert Wyneken, 75, who volunteers at a nearby church that serves meals for the less than fortunate, called Violet the “sweetest lady on the street.” He said she was quiet, independent and resourceful.
Wyneken said she supported herself by recycling cans and didn’t like to panhandle. He said there were efforts to get her housing and in contact with family, but she wouldn’t have it.
“I just think she had something in her life where she wanted to be alone,” he said. “She didn’t want to be a burden to anybody.”
Wyneken, Deol and others said they were deeply troubled by what had happened at the bus stop.
“The guy who did this should spend the rest of his life in jail,” Deol said.