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Woman sleeping on bus bench set on fire in Van Nuys

December 27, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
A homeless woman sleeping on a bus bench was set on fire in Van Nuys early Thursday morning, police said. She remains in extremely critical condition.

The bus bench was her home for at least 10 years, according to those who know her, and her name was Violet.

Police have arrested 24-year-old Dennis Petillo and booked him for attempted murder.

The incident happened around 1 a.m. on Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way. Police said Petillo walked into a Walgreens store, bought alcohol, walked to the bus bench, poured the alcohol on the victim and set her on fire.

Petillo then ran from the scene, but a witness, Erickson Ipina, was able to chase him down.

"I was following him and then I pulled out my cellphone. I called 911 and he just turned back on me and pulled out a knife, and he told me, 'Stop following me or I will cut you,'" said Ipina.

But Ipina continued following Petillo until police arrived. Investigators said the suspect is not believed to be homeless.

Carl Stroebel says he recognized the suspect while watching Eyewitness News at 11 a.m. He said he's the same man he gave a couple of bucks to outside a Walgreens.

"I really feel responsible for this because I gave this fool the money," Stroebel said.

Stroebel says detectives told him he did nothing wrong, thanking him for coming forward with the information.

Police say the 67-year-old victim was severely burned. She was transported to a hospital with life-threatening injuries. Robert Wyneken says she was a regular at the nearby Lutheran church.

"We've tried to get her off the bench for years, and she absolutely refuses. That was her home," he said.

Friends said they would return to the bus bench for a candlelight vigil at 6 p.m.

Petillo is being held on $500,000. A motive for the attack remains unclear.


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