LOS ANGELES – Authorities in Los Angeles believe a dispute between homeless people living together in an abandoned office building led one of them to set a fire that killed five others.
Just one man was declared dead during the fire on Monday night, but two more men and two women were found dead in the rubble by a search team with dogs on Tuesday afternoon, city fire officials said.
The delay came because the badly damaged building was too unstable to search immediately, fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said. The bodies were found under a significant amount of debris.
Before the new deaths were discovered, a man who also had been living there was arrested on suspicion of murder for starting the fire, said Billy Hayes, commanding officer of the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide division.
The man, Johnny Sanchez, 21, had been in a dispute with the others, Hayes said.
“His intent was to light the fire with the hopes of killing these individuals, or at least one individual,” Hayes said.
Hayes said police will seek additional charges now that the death toll has grown.
The four bodies, found on the upper floor, were being removed with a fire ladder truck.
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.
“She was right in the window so she saw the whole thing,” Galeas said. “She said it felt like an oven.”
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.
It wasn’t immediately clear if he has hired an attorney.
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.