A 21-year-old homeless man could be facing the death penalty after he was charged Wednesday with killing five people by allegedly setting a fire in a vacant office building in the Westlake District.
Johnny Josue Sanchez was charged with five counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder in connection with the blaze, which broke out about 7 p.m. Monday in a 14,351-square-foot building at 2411 W. Eighth St. near MacArthur Park.
The murder charges include the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during the commission of an arson. Prosecutors will decide later whether to seek the death penalty against Sanchez.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gustavo N. Sztraicher ordered Sanchez to be held without bail while awaiting arraignment July 27.
Authorities allege Sanchez, who was taken into custody about 8 p.m. Monday, had a dispute with other transients living along with him in the building.
“It was a dispute between Sanchez and other individuals that were residing in the building that was the cause of him ultimately lighting the fire,” said Los Angeles police Lt. William Hayes.
After a male victim was declared dead Monday as a result of the blaze, the bodies of four more homeless victims — two men and two women — were found Tuesday in the ruins of the two-story structure.
Two of the victims were identified as Jerry Dean Clemons, 59, and Mary Ann Davis, 44, according to the District Attorney’s Office. The other three have yet to be identified.
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said the additional victims found Tuesday were located together under debris on the building’s second floor.
“It took some digging, but our firefighters we were able to extricate the bodies,” he said. Crews used a ladder truck to lift the bodies from the unstable building.
Cadaver dogs and their handlers discovered the additional victims inside the burned-out building, according to fire department spokesman Peter Sanders, who said all five victims appeared to be transients.
Firefighters used ladders to rescue three people from second-story windows during the blaze, Sanders said.
“One of those victims was transported to a local hospital and the other two were treated and released on scene,” he said.
As parts of the structure began to tumble down, firefighters went into a defensive posture — meaning they battled the blaze from the exterior — about 20 minutes into their operation.
Investigators are working to determine exactly how the fire was set.
A total of 147 firefighters fought the fire for two hours and 22 minutes, bringing it under control at 9:25 p.m. Monday. No firefighters were injured.
The long-vacant building, which had no functional fire sprinklers, had been the site of past fires, according to a fire department official.
The fire chief asked the public to assist by informing the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety of any vacant structures by dialing 311 in Los Angeles or (213) 473-3231 outside the area. Terrazas said firefighters would assess their districts for vacant buildings and work with safety officials to secure them.
—City News Service
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