LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Los Angeles man was charged Wednesday with five capital murder counts in the deaths of five homeless people killed in a vacant building fire authorities say was intentionally set following a dispute.
Johnny Sanchez, 21, was expected to appear in a downtown Los Angeles court later Wednesday, when he will be appointed an attorney.
Prosecutors are asking that he be held without bail.
The charges against Sanchez, who’s also homeless, make him eligible for the death penalty if he’s convicted. Prosecutors say they will decide later whether to pursue the death penalty.
The Monday night fire in an abandoned office building killed three men and two women. Four of the badly burned bodies weren’t found until Tuesday afternoon because of how unstable the building was.
A search team with dogs found the bodies under a heap of debris on the building’s second floor.
Two of the victims were identified as 59-year-old Jerry Dean Clemons and 44-year-old Mary Anne Davis. The other three haven’t been identified.
Sanchez was in a dispute with the others and lit the fire with the intent to kill, Los Angeles Police Capt. Billy Hayes said.
It took nearly 150 firefighters more than two hours to extinguish the fire in the green, two-story building that once was home to an acupuncture clinic. It is surrounded by strip malls and an apartment building in the Westlake District about a mile west of downtown LA.
The structure appeared to be singed and some of its windows were blown out. It did not appear seriously damaged from the outside, but the inside was badly burned and most of the roof was gone.
Juan Galeas, 25, who lives near the building, said strangers who appeared to be in their 20s and 30s had frequented the abandoned building for the past two or three months. He said he saw five to 10 people moving about after midnight to do drugs.
“Crystal meth,” he said. “I’ve seen the little pipe they’re using.”
Galeas said he was at work when the fire began but that his mother was at the window of their apartment, just off the alley, and saw the whole thing.
“She said it felt like an oven,” Galeas said.
There had been complaints of small alley fires next to the building recently, Terrazas said. Authorities had contacted the owner, who has sought a demolition permit for the building, about keeping people out.
Interviews and evidence gathered Monday night pointed police to Sanchez as the suspect, Hayes said. He would not elaborate.
Sanchez has a police record involving drugs and domestic violence, police said. He was being held on $1 million bail.
Fire officials urged people to notify the city if they see unsecured abandoned buildings, and said firefighters would be making special checks in their districts to makes sure other buildings are not similarly dangerous.
Meanwhile, an unusual fire that erupted early Tuesday in a recycling yard south of downtown Los Angeles in suburban Maywood continued to burn Wednesday as it fed on 10,000 pounds of magnesium. Water could not be used because it reacts explosively with magnesium. About 300 neighbors remained evacuated as firefighters developed a plan to smother it.
Associated Press writer Andrew Dalton contributed to this report.