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Police seek family of homeless woman set on fire in Van Nuys

January 15, 2013 | 10:32 am

Violet PhillipsLAPD detectives are searching for family members of a homeless woman who was set on fire in December as she slept on a Van Nuys bus bench.

Violet Phillips, 67, remains in critical condition at a local hospital after she was attacked at the intersection of Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way. Twenty percent of her body is covered in second- and third-degree burns, said Det. Chris Gable. She can breathe, but needs the help of a ventilator.

Police arrested Dennis Petillo, 24, of Van Nuys, who pleaded not guilty on Dec. 31 to charges of attempted murder and mayhem. He is accused of dousing Phillips with an accelerant and setting her on fire as she slept on the bus bench. Authorities believe he is mentally ill.

Doctors are hoping to get Phillip’ medical history, but detectives have had a difficult time tracking down family.

“One of the things that can help determine a survival rate is past medical history,” Gable said. “Based on the limited information, the doctor said it’s hard for him to give a definitive prognosis.”

As is the case for chronically homeless people, there’s are no records for Phillips, not even records of police contact, which is common for many homeless people, Gable said.

A motive in the attack has not been released, but Gable said a lead is being investigated.

In 2011, the National Coalition for the Homeless counted 105 attacks against the homeless by non-homeless people. One percent of those cases involved fire; 32 were lethal attacks.

Children and elderly women are the most vulnerable among those living on the streets. Many attacks go unreported, said Wade Trimmer, director of the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission.

Trimmer said he often saw Phillips when she would shower at one of their mobile units.

“She always said ‘Thank you’ and ‘God bless you for doing this,’” Trimmer said. “She’d been coming in for years. She was one of those chronically homeless women.”

The longer someone is on the streets, the wider the gap between family members becomes, Trimmer said.

“It’s the responsibility of all of us to recognize everyone in our community, including the homeless,” he said. “So that when something like this happens maybe somebody can say, ‘Hey I know who this is.’”

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-- Adolfo Flores

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