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Man Set Afire in Alleged Rent Dispute Is Near Death

Times Staff Writer

A 37-year-old Santa Ana man doused his nephew with gasoline and set him on fire in a drunken Thanksgiving Day argument over rent money, police said.

Armando Soriano, 20, suffered burns over 90% of his body and was reported in critical condition in the burn ward at UCI Medical Center in Orange. Doctors said it was unlikely that he would survive.

Police said Soriano’s uncle, Marcial Vivar, was being held in Orange County Jail on suspicion of attempted murder.

“They don’t get much worse that this,” said Dr. Steve Sentovich, a surgical resident who was attending the victim. “He’s burned from his knee to his neck.” Sentovich said Soriano’s face and feet were spared serious injury but that the fire had burned Soriano’s clothes into his skin over the rest of his body.

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“It’s like Rothenberg,” Sentovich said, referring to David Rothenberg, the boy who was severely burned 5 years ago when his father set fire to the bed in which he was sleeping in a Buena Park motel. The boy survived.

While Santa Ana Police Sgt. Joe Esther said the motive was not clear, family members indicated later Thursday that the attack apparently was caused by an argument over how much money Soriano was contributing to the rent.

Blanca Torres, 17, a friend from Los Angeles who was staying at the family’s small West 15th Street home when the incident occurred around 1:30 a.m., said she was awakened by sounds of Vivar and his nephew arguing in the living room.

“They had both been drinking a lot,” she said. “They were kidding around and then they started arguing about the rent.”

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“Marcial (Vivar) said that he was going to burn the house down so all the problems would be finished,” she said. “Then Armando said, ‘Well, I’ll be the first one out if you do that.’ ”

“Marcial was mad,” she added, “and said something like, ‘You’ll be the first to die!’ ”

Later, Torres said, Vivar walked to Soriano, who was lying on the couch, and poured gasoline on him from a 5-gallon can apparently obtained from a pickup truck parked in the side yard.

“Armando didn’t do anything,” Torres said, speculating that Soriano didn’t realize he was in danger. “Armando said, ‘You won’t do that because we are blood relatives.’ They were drunk. He went back to his room and then back to the kitchen to wash his hands . . . like he was cleaning up.”

It was then, Torres said, that Vivar walked into the kitchen and lit a match next to his nephew. The match ignited the gasoline that had soaked into Soriano’s pink cotton shirt and black pants, and the clothes burst into flames.

“I told (Vivar) not to do it,” Torres said, “and then (Soriano) was on fire.”

Tomas Felix, 19, a family friend who also lives at the house, said he was awakened by Soriano’s screams as he ran out of the kitchen, through the dining room, out the front door and into the side yard, where he fell to the ground.

As Soriano screamed, Felix said, the three children of Beatriz and Gregorio Vivar, another aunt and uncle of Soriano’s who live at the house, were awakened and witnessed the scene.

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“The house was filling with smoke,” said Felix, who said he had been drinking beer with Vivar earlier in the evening. “Everyone saw it. We ran outside and Marcial was yelling, ‘Get some water!’ We turned the water on him and put a coat over him to put out the fire.”

At midday Thursday, Torres and Beatriz Vivar were washing the fire-blackened walls before the family began preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

Gregorio Vivar said it was Soriano’s first Thanksgiving in the United States, having arrived just 11 months ago from his native town of Chiautla de Tapia in the state of Puebla just south of Mexico City.

He said that Soriano was one of eight children and had been working for a landscaping company since arriving. Soriano’s mother--Gregorio Vivar’s sister--lives in Mexico and had not been informed.

“This is not a good time to tell her,” he said. “I want to wait to see how Armando will do, if he will survive.”


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