In the Westlake area of downtown Los Angeles, a vacant building was destroyed in a fire Monday, June 13, and, five homeless people perished in the blazing inferno, with the roof collapsing on top of their bodies, burying them in the debris.
The fire was set intentionally, by another homeless man who had been staying in the building. Witnesses say a dispute had arisen between the homeless people saying in the building, and they often heard loud music, fighting and throwing bottles. After one such dispute, the suspect, Johnny Sanchez, 21, set the building on fire Monday night, and is now charged with 5 counts of murder. It took 145 firefighters two hours to extinguish the blaze.
Sanchez was an illegal alien from Honduras who was arrested in 2012 for crossing the border, but a week later agents released him “after they determined he had no criminal history or previous immigration violations.”
U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson Virginia Kice said Sanchez was ordered to report regularly to immigration authorities, but “deportation proceedings never began.” He stopped reporting to ICE in 2014, but no search was ever made for him.
Kice said searches “generally only happen when a person has a criminal history or if they have repeatedly tried to enter the country illegally.” She said the agency generally focuses on “individuals who pose a public safety threat.”
However, Sanchez was arrested for domestic abuse in January, and also for drug possession in May and again on June 8, but was released each time.
Sanchez is now being held without bond, pending a trial, on five counts of capital murder. Prosecutors have not determined yet whether they will seek the death penalty. Three men and two women were killed in the fire.
Some local officials are blaming it on a housing problem.
“It really says volumes about the lack of housing that we have available for people,” said Adam Murray, the executive director of Inner City Law Center. “This problem is not going away.”
Councilman Gil Cedillo, who represents the area, said the city should also step up its efforts to secure and ultimately renovate empty buildings. But the lack of sufficient housing was the root of the problem, he said.
“We’re not moving fast enough to build housing,” he said. “So people are creative. They make encampments. They go into abandoned buildings.”
The fire department is urging people to contact the city about empty buildings in their neighborhood, and they will identify any unsecured vacant buildings by the end of June that pose a “significant risk.”
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