VAN NUYS (CBSLA.com) — A 67-year-old homeless woman is in critical condition Thursday after being set on fire while sleeping on a bench in the San Fernando Valley, police said.
Dennis Petillo, 24, was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder for allegedly dousing the woman with a flammable liquid as she slept on a bench at Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way at about 1 a.m.
Just before the attack, witness Erickson Ipina reported seeing the suspect buy what appeared to be rubbing alcohol from a nearby Walgreens.
“He just poured it all over the old lady and then threw the match on her and started running,” Ipina said.
Ipina then chased the man, who was wearing a security jacket.
“I said, ‘Hey stop right there! Stop right there!’ He kept running and I pulled out my cell phone and called 911 and then he just turned back on me and pulled out a knife,” he said.
Despite being threatened with a knife, Ipina continued to follow the suspect until he was arrested by Los Angeles police for suspicion of attempted murder.
Police have not identified the victim but some Van Nuys residents said her name was Violet.
She was hospitalized with burns all over her body, officials said.
The LAPD and the Los Angeles Fire Department ares investigating the attack, which they said was “random.”
A similar crime was committed last week in Norwalk where a 55-year-old homeless man was lit on fire while in a sleeping bag. Offiicals are trying to determine if there is a link between the two incidents.
A crowd of people held a vigil Thursday night outside the Walgreens where Violet was attacked.
“She was a sweet, kind homeless lady, with her shopping cart and her blankets, and it broke my heart when I heard about it,” Van Nuys resident Pat Devin said, while sobbing.
Several people described the victim as polite and said she’d never do anything to provoke an attack.
“Just a wonderful woman. She never hurt anybody, never talked badly about anybody, never asked for anything,” said Johnna Hodges, who considers the victim a friend.