Suspect in fire that killed 5 was here illegally, fought with another transient before slayings

A Honduran citizen charged with murdering five homeless people in an arson fire was in the United States illegally and had been arrested three times in the months before the blaze in a vacant Westlake building where transients were squatting, officials said Friday.

Johnny Josue Sanchez, 21, started the fire to avenge a beating he took in a dispute over occupying a room in the building, a law enforcement source said. 

Sanchez was among a group of people arrested by border patrol agents in 2012 for illegally entering the country at the southeastern California border, officials said. He was released a week later after agents determined that he had no previous immigration violations or criminal history, officials said.

Sanchez was placed under supervision and ordered to report regularly to immigration authorities, though for “unknown reasons” deportation proceedings were never begun, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice.

He quit reporting to immigration officials in August 2014, Kice said, adding that the agency’s policy is “to focus on individuals who pose a public safety threat” and not search for those who fail to report unless they have a criminal background or a history of repeated illegal entry.

ICE generally does not issue requests to law enforcement to hold people like Sanchez who are in the country without legal authorization but have no criminal history, Kice said.

The Los Angeles Police Department arrested Sanchez in January on suspicion of domestic violence, and again in May and June on suspicion of drug possession -- most recently on June 8, days before Monday’s blaze. He was released the next day.

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The Los Angeles Police Department stopped honoring immigration holds in 2014 unless a warrant is issued or a judge has vetted the request.  Federal officials at the time warned the policy could lead to the release of dangerous criminals, but police said it would build community trust and encourage citizens to report crime.

Sanchez now faces murder and attempted murder charges, which could bring the death penalty. The fire came as city officials struggle to identify funding to house a growing homeless population, and street encampments stretching from the Tujunga Wash to San Pedro.

At several tent cities around Westlake, near MacArthur Park, homeless people said they and other friends had been holing up for months in the abandoned building, a former medical and acupuncture clinic, to sleep and use drugs. The fire was a chilling reminder of the hazards they face living in the streets, several said.

“I don’t go in abandoned buildings; I don’t trust them,” said one woman, who gave her name only as “Honey Bunny.” “But when it comes to being homeless, there’s a certain desperation. Some people make it in tents, other people have to be inside, whether it’s to hide what they’re doing or just to say they have a place to live.”

Acquaintances and law enforcement sources said Sanchez confronted a transgender squatter who entered part of the building he considered his territory. After being beaten by the squatter. Sanchez became enraged and set several fires near his room, the sources said. Sanchez’s assailant and a companion escaped through a window, but five other homeless people — three men and two women — died as fire engulfed the building, authorities said.

Jerry Dean Clemons, 59, and Mary Ann Davis, 44, were found in a back room on the building’s second floor, and died either from smoke inhalation or by being crushed when the roof collapsed, authorities said. The bodies of another man and woman were also found in the room.

A close relative said Davis and Clemons were from Ottumwa, Iowa, a town of 26,000, and had come to Los Angeles just days before the fire to join her son. The son was tentatively named as a fire victim based on his ID card, but authorities are awaiting dental records for a positive identification.

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Fallen debris blocked escape for a fifth person who burned to death in a hallway, authorities said. The person remained unidentified Friday.

Homeless people in the neighborhood said they were mourning one of the arson victims, a Watts native they called “Jokerface” because of his broad smile.

“Jokerface was a very good-hearted person, very outgoing and very loud,” said Sahara McFadden, 30, who sometimes cared for his gray pit bull, Gucci.

McFadden said she had used drugs with Jokerface in the abandoned building in the days leading up to the fire.

At the site, purple bandannas were tied cowboy-style around a pole, a hand-made “RIP Jokeface” poster was decorated with grape clusters and loose grapes were scattered on the sidewalk, an apparent reference to the victim’s roots on Grape Street in Watts.

“I will remember him as laughing and joking with me, not as what happened,” Honey Bunny said. “I wouldn’t wish what he went through on anybody.”

gholland@latimes.com

Twitter: @geholland

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes

 

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