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Fire in converted barn kills family of four

Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and Justice

A family of four died Monday when a fire ripped through the converted barn where they had been living.

Firefighters were called to the scene in the 13700 block of Eldridge Avenue in Sylmar about 4:30 a.m. They kicked down the door of the two-story structure and pulled out the four family members, said Capt. Jaime E. Moore of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

The father was found a few feet from the front door, his wife and two young children huddled together nearby. All four were unresponsive, and were pronounced dead after being taken to hospitals. The victims were identified as Uriel Estrada, 41; his wife, Maria Estrada, 40; and their children, Isabel, 12, and Alejandro, 7.

Moore said there were no smoke detectors installed inside the structure, a claim that property owner Leonarda G. Aguilar disputes.

The converted, metal-clad barn is one of two homes on the two-acre lot and is behind the main house. While city records indicate that Aguilar was authorized to convert the barn into living space, Luke Zamperini, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, said the property's permits do not allow for it to include a kitchen or be used as permanent residential housing.

Moore said the residence included a dining area, kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms.

The property has a history of code violations. In 2008, city inspectors paid several visits after discovering a large number of commercial vehicles parked behind the main residence.

Later that year, inspectors found that a large, warehouse-like building had been built next to the barn without approval and ordered Aguilar to demolish it or obtain the required permits.

That order has not been complied with, Zamperini said.

Fire investigators are continuing to work with city officials to determine whether any other code violations occurred at the converted barn, including possible additions to the residence.

Brian Weinberger, an attorney for property owner Leonarda Aguilar, said she had had smoke detectors at the property "all along."

Before the Estrada family moved in about six weeks ago, Weinberger said, the converted barn's interior got a fresh coat of paint and new smoke detectors "were provided."

He would not say whether the smoke detectors were installed by the property owners or a manager. It was also unclear whether carbon monoxide detectors had been installed, as is also required by state law.

He added that Aguilar had not made "any changes of a serious nature" to structures on the property since she purchased it, which was in 2007, according to property records.

"When they purchased the property they were under the impression that everything was to code," Weinberger said.

He said Aguilar is "very distraught over this tragic occurrence" and is fully cooperating with arson investigators. Moore said the woman was teary-eyed and emotional as she walked through the property with investigators Monday afternoon.

Moore said the scene was eerie — Isabel's school clothes were hung, ready to wear, on a doorknob and her desk was immaculately organized. Uriel, whom relatives recalled loved to entertain, would have celebrated his 41st birthday Monday.

Uriel Estrada worked various jobs, but was installing solar panels to pay the bills, said Juan Barrios, a friend and co-worker.

"He was a good man and a good father," Barrios said.

Norma Cruz, a cousin of Maria Estrada, said she last saw the family Christmas Day. They were excited about moving into their new home, and were saving to buy a house of their own, she said.

"They were a very close family," said Cruz, 53.

Both attended Santa Rosa/Bishop Alemany Catholic School in San Fernando; Isabel attended seventh grade and Alejandro was in second grade. Isabel liked gymnastics and sang in her school's choir, while Alejandro liked to play video games and baseball.

In a letter to school parents late Monday, Father Stan Zowada and school Director Rose Kennedy offered grief counseling to students.

"Such a tragedy impacts our school family," the letter read.

"It's hard to think they're not with us now," said Mariah Hernandez, a cousin of the children. "It's almost as if they moved away together."

"To another world," her young nephew chimed in.

"Another world, yes," she said, smiling.

Relatives said they are raising money to pay for the funerals.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

christine.maiduc@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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