Updated Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 10:31 PM
LOS ANGELES — For more than 10 years, the homeless woman slept on the same plastic bus-stop bench at a busy intersection in the San Fernando Valley, no matter how cold it was or if it was raining.
The 67-year-old woman, described by one church volunteer who saw her regularly as the “sweetest lady on the street,” was nestled in her regular spot early Thursday when a man came out of a nearby drugstore, doused her with a flammable liquid and set her ablaze.
She was taken to a nearby hospital, where she was listed in critical condition.
A witness called 911, and police later arrested Dennis Petillo, 24. He was booked for investigation of attempted murder and was held on $500,000 bail. Since 2008, he has pleaded guilty twice to charges related to vehicle theft. The second time, he got two years in prison.
Police provided no possible motive and released no details on Petillo. The victim’s name also was withheld.
The attack shocked nearby residents, and later Thursday about a dozen people held a vigil around the charred bench, urging motorists to honk their horns in support of rights for the homeless. One sign on the bench read, “Our Prayers to Violet,” thought to be the woman’s first name.
“This is a hate crime as far as I’m concerned. All this woman did was try to sit out here and get warm,” said Barbara Weiss, 57, who works for a company that provides transportation to the handicapped.
Tej Deol, 31, who lives at a nearby sober-living house, said the woman made the bench her home and often was sleeping there after sundown. He said he saw her Christmas Eve, getting ready to eat some soup.
“I told her, ‘Merry Christmas and happy New Year,’ and she said she was doing good,” Deol said. “She was so kind. She was happy to have someone talk to her.”
Thursday’s incident was at least the third in Los Angeles County since October in which people were set on fire.
Last week, a 55-year-old man was seriously injured when he was torched as he slept outside a doughnut shop in Norwalk.
Two months earlier, Long Beach police said Jacob Timothy Lagarde, 27, threw a lit Molotov cocktail at a man who had been waiting for his father outside a store. Lagarde has since been charged with attempted murder and five other counts.
Police are investigating whether Petillo might be tied to any similar crimes, but at this point detectives don’t think he is, Cmdr. Andrew Smith said.
As the number of flowers and candles around the scorched bench grew Thursday, people who knew the victim tried to comprehend why a woman who seemed so benign could be so viciously attacked.
Robert Wyneken, 75, who volunteers at a nearby church that serves meals, called her the “sweetest lady on the street.” He said she was quiet, independent and resourceful.
Wyneken said she supported herself by recycling cans and didn’t like to panhandle. He said there were efforts to get her housing and to contact relatives, but she wouldn’t have it.
“I just think she had something in her life where she wanted to be alone,” he said. “She didn’t want to be a burden to anybody.”
Steve Williams, 62, who identified himself as a homeless veteran, said he is aware of the dangers of sleeping on the street but it’s difficult to find space at nearby shelters, especially at this time of year.
“We are all human. No one should be treated like that,” he said.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.
Phil Furtado on Thursday places candles on a burned city bus bench in Los Angeles where a woman was set afire.