Last week, residents at the plum-colored, stucco apartment building in Long Beach began to notice a foul odor. Perhaps an animal died under the building, some neighbors thought.
One resident asked her son, who had been laying carpet, to check for holes on the floor and try to find the source of the odor. Another called a plumber to check whether the problem was related to the sewers.
On Monday night, the mystery was solved in the most terrible of ways by Idelfonsa Cruz, 56, who became convinced that someone had died in one of the apartments.
"It smelled like death," she said.
Cruz and several neighbors began to knock on doors in an impromptu welfare check. Everyone answered their door, except the people who lived in one of the apartments. Cruz said she took a peek through the window and saw the body of a man lying on a mattress in the corner of the room.
Nearby, another man lay on the kitchen floor.
"Oh my God, oh my God, there's two dead people," Cruz said she cried out.
In fact, it was worse than that.
Long Beach police said three people were found dead inside the apartment, suspected of having been overcome by carbon monoxide.
A large portable propane space heater was found near the bodies inside the home in the 1100 block of Gardenia Avenue, said Ed Winter, spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner. Long Beach police say they went to the building at about 6:50 p.m. after someone reported the odor.
Police said the victims had been using the heater to stay warm. A cold snap enveloped much of Southern California about two weeks ago, but it's unclear when the victims died.
"These type of heaters are not intended for indoor use and can produce deadly levels of carbon monoxide if the area is not adequately ventilated," police said in a statement.
Long Beach fire officials said 400 to 450 die each year in the U.S. from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The victims were described as a man whose age had not been determined, a woman in her 30s and a man in his 50s, Winter said.
Dioser Quintero, 18, the building manager, said she and her mother, Araceli Carrillo, 49, had joined Cruz in her search. She said she also saw the bodies, but was afraid to open the door. They called the police and fire departments and the building owner.
Quintero said that a couple who were living in the unit have a 2-year-old daughter who was not staying with them.
On Tuesday, residents began to make their way past the apartment, covering their noses and mouths with their hands, the edge of a jacket or shirts pulled over their noses.
Outside the apartment, a red Volkswagen had parking tickets on the front windshield. It was the same case with a white GMC truck parked across the street. Neighbors say the vehicles, which were ticketed because they were not moved for Thursday and Friday street sweeping, belonged to two of the victims.
Cruz said she had noticed it had been quiet at that apartment, but she didn't think anything was wrong.
"They came, moved in and I didn't see them after that," Cruz said. "I thought, what great neighbors they are because there was no loud noise, not even the sound of a radio."
Now, she said, she has been praying for her dead neighbors.
"I prayed for them and said: Dear God, only you know what happened to them," Cruz said. "And now that they are with you, please take care of them."