A homeless man accused of setting a fire that killed five people in a vacant office building in the Westlake district where he was living with other transients pleaded not guilty Tuesday to capital murder charges.
Johnny Josue Sanchez, now 22, could face the death penalty after being charged with five counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder in connection with the June 13 blaze.
The murder charges include the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during the commission of an arson. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty against Sanchez, who is being held without bail.
Authorities allege Sanchez intentionally set the fire because he had a dispute with other transients living along with him in the 14,351-square-foot, long-vacant building at 2411 W. Eighth St. near MacArthur Park.
“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,” Los Angeles police Lt. William Hayes alleged.
A male victim was initially declared dead as a result of the blaze. The bodies of four more homeless victims — two men and two women — were found the next day in the ruins of the two-story structure, which had no functional fire sprinklers.
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said the additional victims were located together under debris on the second floor.
Cadaver dogs and their handlers discovered the additional victims, according to fire department spokesman Peter Sanders, who said all five victims appeared to be transients.
Two of the victims were identified — Jerry Dean Clemons, 59, and Mary Ann Davis, 44 — but the names of two other males and another female victim have not been released.
Firefighters used ladders to rescue three people from second-story windows during the blaze, Sanders said. One of them was transported to a local hospital, and the other two were treated at the scene.
It took 147 firefighters nearly 2 1/2 hours to extinguish the blaze, which broke out about 7 p.m. Sanchez was arrested at the scene.
He is due back in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom Oct. 13, when a date is scheduled to be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require him to stand trial.
–City News Service