Homeless advocates speak out about woman set ablaze in Van Nuys


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As police search for the family of a homeless woman who was set ablaze in Van Nuys, advocates said the assault, while extreme, highlights the dangers that transients face on the streets.

Violet Phillips, 67, remained in critical condition Monday after the December attack at the intersection of Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way. Twenty percent of her body was covered in second- and third-degree burns, said Det. Chris Gable.


Police arrested Dennis Petillo, 24, of Van Nuys, who pleaded not guilty Dec. 31 to charges of attempted murder and mayhem. He is accused of dousing Phillips with an accelerant and setting her on fire as she slept on a bus bench. Authorities believe he is mentally ill.

Doctors are hoping to get Phillips’ medical history, but detectives have had a difficult time tracking down family.

‘One of the things that can help determine a survival rate is past medical history,’ Gable said.

As is often the case for chronically homeless people, police have found few records for Phillips, not even records of police contact, Gable said.

A motive in the attack has not been released, but Gable said a lead is being investigated.

Homeless people may be seen as easy targets by perpetrators because they live on the fringes of society, homeless advocates said. In 2011, the National Coalition for the Homeless counted 105 attacks against the homeless by non-homeless people, the sixth-highest annual tally since 1999. One of those cases involved fire; 32 were lethal attacks.

‘Homeless people in the eyes of the community are less than human and therefore an appropriate target for some people,’ said Neil J. Donovan, executive director of the coalition.

Wade Trimmer, director of the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission, said he would see Phillips when she would shower at one of its mobile units. She said little about her personal life but was always grateful, he said.

‘She always said, ‘Thank you,’ and ‘God bless you for doing this,’’ Trimmer said. ‘She’d been coming in for years.’

Children and elderly women are the most vulnerable people living on the streets, Trimmer said.

‘There are certain things homeless people accept about their lives. Being attacked or beat up is one of them,’ he said.

Trimmer urged people to take notice of the homeless in their communities, ‘so that when something like this happens, maybe somebody can say, ‘Hey, I know who this is.’’

News of the attack brought back sad memories and frustration for Susanne McGraham Paisley.

Her brother, John McGraham, 55, died in October 2008 after he was doused with gasoline and set on fire with an emergency road flare by Ben Matthew Martin, who later pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, torture and arson causing great bodily injury.

Authorities believe Martin sought revenge after being fired by his boss for hitting McGraham, a fixture in the Koreatown community.

McGraham Paisley was at a gym when she saw the news of the attack on Phillips on television. Society looks at the homeless as lazy, McGraham Paisley said, yet most of them, like her brother, held jobs and lived under a roof for many years.

‘When we imagine how we might die, one of the worst possible images is being set on fire. What happened to this woman was a tragedy,’ McGraham Paisley said. ‘It makes me sad thinking that we, being such a powerful and affluent society, can’t reach out to these people.’


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Photo: Ralph Boyle, 49, passed by the scorched bus-stop bench in December in Van Nuys where a sleeping homeless woman was set on fire. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times.