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Suspect in homeless woman's burning is mentally ill, police say

A man arrested on suspicion of setting a homeless woman on fire while she slept on a Van Nuys bus bench is believed to be mentally ill, police said.

There was no rhyme or reason for Thursday's attack that left the woman known as Flo in critical condition after she was allegedly doused with rubbing alcohol and set on fire by Dennis Petillo, 24, said Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese.

“There was no incident or dispute or clear motivation for this horrific attack. He did not know his victim. It defies explanation,” Albanese said. “He is not of sound mind.... The motive is mental illness.”

Police have not released the woman's name, but residents said she was Flo Parker. She was also known as Violet: a 5-foot-tall woman with dirty blond hair and a time-worn face that made her look older than her 67 years. She remained in critical condition Friday.

“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.

In Thursday’s early hours, witness Erickson Ipina told reporters, he watched in horror as the attack unfolded. A man walked out of the Walgreens with what appeared to be rubbing alcohol, he said.

“He just poured it all over the old lady,” Ipina said. “Then he threw the match on her and started running.”

Ipina said he gave chase. “Hey, stop right there!” he said he yelled. “Stop right there!” But the man kept running.

“I pulled out my cellphone and called 911 and then he just turned back on me and pulled out a knife,” said Ipina, whose account was confirmed by the LAPD.

Police arrested Petillo on suspicion of attempted murder. Since 2008, he has pleaded guilty twice to charges related to vehicle theft. The second time, he was sentenced to two years in prison.

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L.A. Now Live: A homeless woman is set ablaze in Van Nuys

-- Ashley Powers, Bob Pool and Richard Winton

 
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