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Parties, fights and trash fires: Signs of trouble seen weeks before arson at Westlake apartment

For weeks, Westlake neighbors complained about the green, two-story building along West 8th Street, empty except for the squatters who had moved inside. 

Neighbors heard loud music and parties, and people fighting and throwing bottles. Firefighters doused a series of trash fires in an adjacent alley. They alerted the property manager, in hopes of getting the building boarded up and broken locks fixed to keep people out.

Those efforts came to a tragic end Monday evening, when flames broke out inside the building in what would become the city’s deadliest structure fire this year. Five people were killed, some of their bodies so badly burned that it could take days to identify them.

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Authorities believe the victims – three men and two women -- were living inside the building, along with the 21-year-old homeless man accused of intentionally starting the fire after a dispute with people living inside. The suspect, Johnny Sanchez, was charged Wednesday with murder and attempted murder, charges that could bring the death penalty.

Fire officials were concerned about the potential risks inside the building, and two battalion chiefs toured the site about two weeks before the fire, said Fire Department spokesman Peter Sanders. Fire officials said they were working with the property manager to try to secure the building.

The fatal blaze added urgency to L.A.’s ongoing struggle to find housing for a ballooning homeless population, including those who create makeshift homes inside vacant buildings scattered across the city.

“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, which sent nearly 150 personnel to Monday’s blaze, urged the public to contact the city about empty buildings in their neighborhoods. Sanders, the department spokesman, said firefighters would conduct their own survey to identify unsecured vacant buildings by the end of June that present a “significant risk.”

The fire broke out about 7 p.m. Monday, after Sanchez allegedly got into a dispute with other homeless people at the building. He set the fire on purpose, LAPD Capt. Billy Hayes said, “with the hopes of killing these individuals.”

When police officers arrived, Hayes said, witnesses pointed them toward Sanchez, who was arrested on suspicion of murder after firefighters discovered the first body Monday night.  Cadaver dogs found the other four victims the next day, their bodies buried under debris.

Two victims were identified Wednesday as Jerry Dean Clemons, 59, and Mary Ann Davis, 44.

The 8th Street building drew increased attention from the Fire Department about two weeks ago, after trash fires began in the nearby alley, Sanders said. Fire officials discussed how they would fight a fire should one break out in the building, he said, and two battalion chiefs walked through the empty structure.

The chiefs contacted the property manager, Sanders said, who “verbally agreed” last Thursday to take steps to secure the building, including boarding up entrances and reinforcing locks.

Also on the list was fixing a metal security gate at the entrance of a parking garage, which Sanders said squatters had cut through to get inside the property. A new gate was installed over the damaged portion last week, Sanders said, but was “vandalized again prior to the fire.”

The Fire Department last inspected the building in January 2015 and was scheduled to do so again in January of this year but didn’t, records showed.

Sanders said it is unlikely the missed inspection would have resulted in earlier action to secure the building.

“The LAFD worked with the property owner to mitigate the problems as they were unfolding,” Sanders wrote in an email.

The president of the company that manages the property, John Safi, said in an email that the owners were “extremely saddened by the deaths” but had “taken every measure to board up and secure” the site. A permit to demolish the building – which housed medical offices and a church before it was sold last year – was issued last week, records show.

Sanders said the Fire Department also called an inspector with the city’s Department of Building and Safety about the Westlake building to “to prevent entry by squatters.” But Frank Bush, a spokesman for the building department, said his office hadn’t gotten any complaints about the structure before Monday’s fire.  

The department has received roughly 4,000 complaints since 2011 about abandoned and vacant buildings, according to a Times review of city data. As of June 1, the office was monitoring more than 600 empty structures that it had discovered weren’t properly secured, according to its website.

When the city gets complaints about abandoned buildings, Bush said, inspectors check on them and order building owners to fence off or lock up any spaces that are open.

Before he stayed in the empty building, Sanchez lived with his family in an apartment complex a few blocks away.  Relatives said Sanchez moved in with his aunt and uncle about a year ago, but soon started behaving oddly.

“He left a long time ago,” Sanchez’s uncle, Celis Leiba, said through the apartment’s half-opened door Wednesday. “He didn’t want us giving him guidance.”

Sanchez was arrested at least twice in recent months on drug-related offenses, records showed. City prosecutors declined to prosecute him following a May 27 arrest for misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office said. 

The most recent arrest came last week, records showed, when Sanchez was booked on suspicion of drug possession.  He was released from jail the next day.

Miriam Garcia, whose uncle manages the building where Sanchez’s family lives, said she last saw the 21-year-old Monday, the day of the deadly fire. Sanchez was headed toward MacArthur Park, she said, with a “very serious frown on his face.”

“He seemed like he was upset about something,” she said. 

Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

ruben.vives@latimes.com | Twitter: @LATvives

emily.alpert@latimes.com | Twitter: @LATimesemily

ben.welsh@latimes.com | Twitter: @palewire

kate.mather@latimes.com | Twitter: @katemather

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UPDATES:

4:10 p.m.: This article was updated with new information.

3:05 p.m.: This article was updated with new information.

This article was first posted at 9:16 a.m.

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