Man Dies After Setting Home Ablaze During Fiery Rampage

Times Staff Writers

An elderly man with one arm ablaze and a pistol in his other hand tried to set two neighbors' homes on fire and incinerated his own Downey home, killing himself early Sunday morning, police said.

Authorities found incendiary devices smoldering in front of two neighboring houses. The homemade firebombs were allegedly placed there by the man, whom police did not identify, before authorities arrived, Downey police said in a statement. Those bombs did not fully ignite.

When firefighters extinguished the blaze in the man's house hours later, they found his body amid spent ammunition and several cans of flammable liquids, fire officials said.

No one else was injured in the fire, but two neighboring buildings were damaged, Downey police and fire officials said.

Neighbors told police the incident came after repeated disputes between the man and local residents over parking in the 8000 block of Bergman Lane, a cul-de-sac.

"He had complained people were parking in front of his house," said Downey Police Officer Runyan, who declined to give his first name. Neighbors described the man as "an old, grumpy guy who didn't like people playing music real loud," he added.

Jessica Saucedo, 18, who lives across the street with her parents, Matt and Socorro Saucedo, said he often made racist remarks against Latinos and African Americans and terrorized the neighborhood children when they would play in the street in front of his house.

"He threatened to chop off their heads with an ax," said Jessica Saucedo, who was awakened early Sunday morning by shouts and gunfire.

"He was just a miserable, old man," she said.

Saucedo said she looked out her bedroom window when she woke up and saw the man standing near her front porch with a torch in his hand. A doormat near her front door was burning, and she ran to wake up her parents.

Police, called by another neighbor, arrived almost immediately, about 5 a.m., and confronted the man, estimated to be in his late 70s.

"He had a 9-millimeter Beretta in one hand and one of his arms appeared to be on fire," said Sgt. Ralph Romero. A second pistol was tucked into his waistband, Romero said.

The man refused police commands to drop the weapons, turned around in the street and entered his house, officials said.

"He didn't say anything at all," Runyan said. "He walked back into his house, and next thing we knew a fire started and the house was completely in flames."

As officers evacuated nearby homes, explosions and gunfire could be heard from within the burning house, the police statement said.

The threat of gunfire kept the Fire Department from immediately working to put out the fire, Battalion Chief Jeff Turner said.

About two hours later, when the blaze was extinguished, investigators found signs of "lots of accelerant and several starting points" for the fire, Turner said, indicating that it was set intentionally. They also found expended ammunition rounds in the house and in a van parked in the driveway.

Fire investigators described the two incendiary devices as sealed gasoline cans in metal tubs filled with diesel fuel.

"It's not something I've seen before," Turner said. "It looks like the intent was to light the diesel so eventually it would heat up and blow the gas tank."

Neither of the gas cans exploded. Had the devices worked as intended, they could have severely burned the houses and any sleeping occupants, Turner said.

The man's motive remains murky, he said.

"A real aggravated neighbor, I guess," Turner said. "It doesn't really make sense to anybody."

The Los Angeles County coroner's office said identification of the body would take several days and require dental records.

On Sunday night, Jessica Saucedo and her family tried to wash off the gasoline from their front door and porch. The family earlier had jumped over their backyard fence to safety.

Of her neighbor, Saucedo recalled, "He would shout at the neighbors all the time, but we just ignored him.... He threatened to kill kids, but he could barely walk, so we never paid attention to him."

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