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Homeless man charged with five counts of murder in fire at L.A. office building

westlake fire
A body is lowered via cable from a charred building in the Westlake neighborhood.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A 21-year-old homeless man was charged with five counts of murder Wednesday for allegedly started a massive fire in a vacant Westlake building that killed five other transients.

Prosecutors allege that Johnny Sanchez set the fire after getting into a dispute with the victims. The fire killed Jerry Dean Clemons, 59, and Mary Ann Davis, 44. The three other victims have not been identified.

Sanchez and the others were living in the 8th Street building, Los Angeles police Capt. Billy Hayes told reporters.

When officers first arrived at the scene, police said, witnesses pointed them toward Sanchez as a potential suspect. 

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Firefighters found a man’s body in the building as they battled the blaze Monday night, authorities said. Cadaver dogs found four other bodies – two men and two women -- Tuesday afternoon.

The bodies were buried under debris, said fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, noting that the building’s roof had collapsed.  

”It’s all debris in there,” he said.

Sanchez was being held in lieu of $1-million bail. Police said he had prior arrests for drugs and domestic violence. Prosecutors have asked that he be held without bail and will decide at a later date whether to seek the death penalty.

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It took almost 150 firefighters more than two hours to defeat the blaze, which broke out about 7 p.m. Monday in the two-story office building, located a few blocks from MacArthur Park. Owners and employees at nearby businesses said the building – which once housed medical offices and a church – has sat vacant since it was sold last year.

The deaths come as Los Angeles continues to look for ways to help the city’s growing homeless population. City leaders have been putting together a plan designed to significantly increase the amount of housing available for homeless residents.

It was not immediately clear how many people had been living in the building at the time of the fire. 

Firefighters rescued three people from the second story of the burning building, fire officials said. One was taken to a hospital for treatment.

Joseph Chang, who volunteers with an organization across the street, said he watched people climb down the building’s fire ladders, scattering as soon as they reached the ground. Others, he said, had jumped out of the window before the fire trucks arrived.

”A column of fire was coming out of that corner,” Chang, 80, said in Korean, pointing to where some numbers on the outside of the building had melted away. “There was a swarm of people coming down the ladders.”

Chang said Monday’s fire was the third time a blaze had broken out at the abandoned building in recent months. 

Maria Guerrero, who lives in an apartment next to the burned building, said she’d noticed unusual noises -- loud music, screaming. people throwing bottles – coming from the space for several months. 

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Guerrero, 45, said her apartment manager notified police at least twice about people entering the vacant building. “Nothing ever happened,” she said.

On Monday, Guerrero was preparing for her evening walk when she bumped into the apartment manager, who told her the building was on fire. She returned to her upstairs unit and watched out the window as firefighters tried to save people from the burning building. She heard screams, she said, and within minutes, the firefighters pulled two people out.

Smoke lingered in the air Tuesday, with ash and debris scattered on the sidewalk. The green paint on the building’s facade was blistered from the heat of the flames. A row of windows lining the building’s second floor were gone, blown out by the fire. 

On Tuesday afternoon, after the building’s roof collapsed, firefighters used a ladder to hoist a gurney onto the charred second floor. Another body was pulled from the debris. 

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Twitter:@josephserna

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UPDATES:

2:41 p.m., June 15: This post was updated with murder charges being filed.

6 p.m.: This post was updated with information about the arrest of a suspect and comments from police and witnesses.

This post was originally published at 3:38 p.m., June 14.


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