Woman set on fire in LA as she sleeps on bench

Phil Furtado places candles on a burned city bus bench in Los Angeles on Thursday. Police arrested a man for allegedly setting a 67-year-old woman on fire who was sleeping on the bus stop bench.

Phil Furtado places candles on a burned city bus bench in Los Angeles on Thursday. Police arrested a man for allegedly setting a 67-year-old woman on fire who was sleeping on the bus stop bench. Photo by The Associated Press.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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 woman, 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 nearby hospital, where she was listed in critical condition.

A witness called 911, 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.

Police provided no possible motive and released no details on Petillo. The victim’s name also was withheld.

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.

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