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Grim mystery after five die in fire at adult-care facility in Temecula

The two homes set back along Cruz Way were indistinguishable from the other residences that dotted the orchards and vineyards in Riverside County’s wine country.

In a semirural area of dry grass, corrals, orange trees and horses, the homes served as an adult-care facility for developmentally disabled adults.

On Tuesday, one of the two homes was a grim crime scene. Authorities found the remains of five people after a suspicious fire severely damaged the structure early Monday.

Police and fire officials are still trying to determine how the fire started as well as the cause of deaths of the victims, who have not been publicly identified.

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Neighbors and local officials said they were stunned at the loss of life, especially given the vulnerabilities of the those who lived there.

“It’s tragic, and it’s sad,” Temecula Mayor Mike Naggar said.  “The fact that it was some sort of congregate care, and the fact that they may have been developmentally disabled, is very troubling. So I’m anxious to hear what comes back.”

Riverside County firefighters rushed to the property — just outside Temecula’s city limits — about 5 a.m. Monday, and spent the next hour battling the blaze. As the flames waned, firefighters discovered one set of human remains. Sheriff’s Department investigators were called in, and four other sets of adult remains were found, officials said Tuesday.

 

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The facility was known as the Renee Jennex Small Family Home, according to state records. 

The property had been licensed to care for four developmentally disabled people since 2003, according to California Department of Social Services records. The facility was inspected in 2011, 2012 and most recently, in November. Records show “no deficiencies were observed” at the time. 

According to the most recent inspection report, the facility was outfitted with smoke detectors and was conducting monthly disaster drills with its patients. 

On Tuesday afternoon, sheriff’s officials could be seen working near the burned remains of what appeared to have been a small home on a large rural lot where horses were kept.

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A backhoe was slowly removing several walls of the charred building, which sits across a dirt road from a vineyard — one of several in the area. By the early evening, a large part of the house had been demolished, leaving only some charred remains on a foundation, surrounded by a handful of orange trees. Investigators remained at the site, and much of Cruz Way remained closed. 

Authorities declined to say whether anyone in the building survived the fire.

Many neighbors said they didn’t even know that an adult-care facility was on the street. Nearly every lot along Cruz Way is large, with structures set back from the roadway. Most neighbors in the community of rolling hills and vineyards keep to themselves, said Heather Lara, who lives along a dirt road near the residence that burned down.

Every once in a while she would see a man at the gate, and dogs and horses sometimes moved around the yard, but Lara said she had “never seen anyone else on the property.”

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There were two homes on the affected property, she added. The structure that burned down was the smaller of the two, and was built about six years ago, she said. The larger building, a green house, was built before Lara moved to the neighborhood about 15 years ago.

“I don’t think I’ve processed it yet,” Lara said. “It’s not something you expect to happen to your neighbors." 

Residents and others say they hope investigators can determine what went wrong.

 

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Francis Helmle, 61, drove by the home’s charred remains Tuesday afternoon after hearing about the fire on the news. Helmle, who lives a few blocks away, said he had not heard or seen anything that would suggest a tragedy just down the road.

“I’ve been out here for about 13 years,” he said, “and it’s always been nice and quiet.”

The hills are dark and quiet, he said, with what little noise there is coming from weddings and other events at nearby wineries. Helmle said he was stunned to see such carnage just a few blocks from his front door.

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“I was shocked,” he said. “I was surprised it was in my own backyard." 

Esquivel reported from Temecula. Queally and Serna reported from Los Angeles. 

Joseph.serna@latimes.com

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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james.queally@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna @palomaesquivel and @JamesQueallyLAT on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

5:53p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from local officials and neighbors.

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3:10 p.m.: This article was updated with interviews from the scene and additional information contained in fire department and state licensing division reports. 

2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with details of the destroyed property.

1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with details of an adult residential facility licensed to operate on Cruz Way.

This article was originally published at 12:45 p.m.

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