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Fire Kills 4 Who Shared Carson Home

Times Staff Writers

Two disabled veterans, their live-in caretaker and her boyfriend died early Thursday when a fire raged through the Carson home they all shared, authorities and neighbors said.

Los Angeles County firefighters responding to the 2:30 a.m. blaze in the 19000 block of Dunbrooke Avenue put out the fire in about 15 minutes, but the four already had died -- probably from smoke inhalation, Fire Capt. Mark Savage said.

The veterans, identified by coroner’s officials as Reginald Sneed, 57, and Rudolph Beribak, 81, both used wheelchairs and were found in their beds. Friends said that Sneed, a Vietnam veteran, regularly volunteered at the Veterans Affairs hospital chapel in Long Beach. Beribak was a jazz lover who served in the Army during World War II.

The caretaker, Maria Villanueva, 38, was found on a bathroom floor in the back of the house with Alfred Bidaure, 39, whom neighbors described as Villanueva’s fiance. The fire in the home’s front room had blocked their path, Savage said. The latch releasing the security bars on their bedroom window was behind a large dresser and television, which could have made it difficult to locate or operate, he said.

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Two of the occupied bedrooms in the house had brackets for smoke detectors but were missing the devices themselves, Savage said. One smoke detector was located in the kitchen. “But it was so far from the bedroom areas it was unlikely it was heard,” he said.

Det. Richard Edwards, an arson and explosives investigator for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said the fire was still under investigation, but “was likely accidental.”

The modest, well-tended stucco house did not have a residential care license from the California Department of Social Services, state officials said. But they added it may not have needed one if the veterans only required moderate assistance.

“Those are the things we are trying to figure out,” department spokesman Andrew Roth said Thursday. “First we need to establish what level of services these guys needed, and then what level of license these individuals should have applied for, if any.”

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Legal, unlicensed homes are often a cheaper alternative for disabled veterans who cannot afford more expensive, licensed care, said Estella Murray, spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs at the VA Long Beach Healthcare System.

But, unlike licensed facilities, they are not required to uphold safety requirements -- from proper fire exits to flame-retardant pajamas for residents.

“We recommend they go to licensed facilities to begin with,” she said. “But then the family has to look at what they can afford to pay.”

Sneed’s and Beribak’s disabilities were not related to their military service, which made them ineligible for VA home-care subsidies, Murray said.

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Neighbors recall the two as a cheerful pair who appeared well-cared for by Villanueva.

They said the veterans, known around the neighborhood as Rudy and Reggie, moved there with Villanueva about two years ago, and were joined by Bidaure a few months later.

A woman who identified herself only as Velma said her quadriplegic brother had also lived in the house until his death two months ago. She described Villanueva as an excellent caretaker who once employed a number of workers to help care for the men. The floors glistened and the men had individual rooms with TVs, Velma said.

“My brother loved the place -- he called it home,” she said. “And he loved [Villanueva]. She looked out for him. I can’t believe she was in there.”

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Sneed and Beribak were often out on the block, tooling along the sidewalks in their motorized wheelchairs and greeting neighbors.

Friends said Beribak often went to the VA hospital in Long Beach to meet friends, receive physical therapy and attend Mass at its chapel.

“He spent more time in the chapel than the chaplains did,” said the Rev. George B. Vogel, a VA chaplain.

“He was a cool old guy,” said Andy Fort, a hospital housekeeper. “I hate to see him go.”

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Sneed was originally from Alabama and his volunteerism at the VA chapel included answering the phone and other tasks, Vogel said.

Both men spent a lot of time at the Bodacious Barbecue, a neighborhood joint with bebop on the stereo and walls covered with photos of jazz luminaries like James Moody and Billy Higgins. Because Sneed couldn’t eat without help, owners Marcia and Roswell Phillips would wrap his barbecue to go and tie it to the back of his wheelchair.

“He was a nice, quiet guy -- really humble,” said Roswell Phillips, 70. “And he just got a new wheelchair. He came in and demonstrated it.”

Times staff writer Allison Hoffman contributed to this report.

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