WEST COVINA >> A La Puente woman who befriended an elderly West Covina man, stabbed him to death and set the house ablaze pleaded “no contest” to murder and arson charges Thursday, authorities said.
Brenda Armstrong, 40, is expected to be sentenced to 30 years to life in state prison when she returns to the Pomona branch of Los Angeles County Superior Court for sentencing on Dec. 14, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Ricardo Santiago said.
She was originally accused of the special circumstance of murder during the coarse of a burglary, but the special circumstance allegation was dismissed under the negotiated plea arrangement, Deputy District Attorney Tony Cho of the D.A.’s Elder Abuse Section said. If convicted as originally charged, Armstrong could have faced life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors previously decided not to seek the death penalty in the case.
Ralph Simonian, 82, was found dead on Nov. 15, 2012, inside his burning home in the 900 block of Holiday Drive, according to prosecutors and Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators, who assisted West Covina police in the investigation.
“His house had been set on fire and he had been stabbed multiple times,” district attorney’s officials said in a written statement.
After a lengthy investigation, detectives determined Simonian, who lived alone at his home, had been slain by Armstrong during a burglary at his home, Sgt. Robert Gray of the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau said at the time.
She had befriended Simonian while working at J.B. Burgers in La Puente, where Simonian was a regular customer, officials said.
On the day of the slaying, a neighbor’s security camera captured images of a car Armstrong had borrowed arriving on the victim’s street, detectives and prosecutors said. Cell phone data also linked Armstrong to the crime scene.
Detectives first arrested Armstrong in connection with the slaying about two months after it occurred. But prosecutors declined to file charges, citing insufficient evidence. Armstrong promptly moved to Delaware.
Detectives continued gathering evidence and building their case. Prosecutors ultimately filed a murder charge and issued an arrest warrant for Armstrong, who was taken into custody in Delaware during a traffic stop on Sept. 13, 2013.
Deputies found no signs of forced entry at Simonian’s home. Detectives learned she had visited the victim on several occasions, Gray said.
There were no signs of forced entry at Simonian’s home, the sergeant said. The fire, which began in the master bedroom where Simonian was fatally stabbed, was believed to have been set in order to destroy evidence.
The entire incident lasted about 45 minutes, Cho said.
Many of the details surrounding the slaying remain a mystery, as there were no witnesses, and Armstrong has not detailed the crime.
Officials said theft was believed to be the motive in the murder, but it was unclear what was stolen.
A small safe was discovered missing from Simonian’s home following the slaying and fire, Gray said.
The safe has never been recovered.
“We don’t know what was in the safe,” Cho said.
Absent of eye witnesses or DNA evidence, the case was largely “circumstantial,” Cho said.
He praised the tenacity of homicide detectives for Thursday’s conviction.
“I would jut credit with the detectives with putting together all the circumstantial evidence in the case,” Cho said.
PHOTO by Keith Birmingham
PASADENA >> A homeless man received an 18-year prison sentence Wednesday after admitting to arson and other charges for torching a Pasadena auto body shop in 2014, officials said.
Jesse Cole Nicholas, 31,pleaded guilty to eight felony counts and one misdemeanor in the Pasadena branch of Los Angeles County Superior Court, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Jane Robison said. The charges included arson of a structure, arson of a vehicle, auto theft, two counts of burglary and four counts of vandalism and petty theft.
“He was… given two strikes and ordered to pay over $550,000 in restitution,” Derderian said.
The case stems from a Sept. 27, 2014, arson fire that destroyed a building and two cars at Alliance Auto Body, 826 S. Arroyo Parkway, causing more than $375,000 worth of damage, officials said.
In addition to the charges, Nicholas also admitted to the special allegations of using an accelerant in the structure arson, and that the damage exceeded $200,000, Robison said.
The fire, which broke out about 7:20 a.m., was immediately deemed suspicious by fire investigators.
Derderian said the fire scorched a rear building used for detailing and prep work and destroyed two cars parked inside.
Surveillance camera footage depicted a man jumping a fence and breaking into the business just before the flames erupted, officials said at the time.
Nicholas stole a car and drove away, but returned several hours later and broke into several cars before lighting one on fire, Derderian said.
Nicholas, described as a “career criminal,” was believed to be high on drugs during the unusual crime.
He was on felony probation under the terms of AB 109 at the time of the arson, records show.
Police and fire investigators found and arrested Nicholas on outstanding warrants two days after the fire at Central Park.
He was being held on the previous charges when he was positively identified through DNA evidence as the arsonist in mid-October, Derderian said.
A restitution hearing was scheduled for June 1.
PHOTO: Pasadena firefighters work at the scene of an arson fire that caused about $375,000 damage to a building and two vehicles parked at Alliance Auto Shop, 826 S. Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena, on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. (Courtesy, Pasadena Fire Department)
INDUSTRY >> An arson fire scorched an Industry warehouse packed with paper goods Wednesday, authorities said.
The fire was first reported about 2:45 a.m. at a 55,000-square-foot warehouse in the 700 block of South 5th Avenue, Los Angeles Count fire and sheriff’s officials said.
Though largely “kept in check” by the building’s sprinkler system, firefighters battled the stubborn blaze for nearly two hours until it was declared extinguished, Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Randall Wright said. No injuries were reported.
But firefighters determined the scene of the fire appeared suspicious and called in investigators from the Los Angeles County sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail, Wright said.
“The cause is arson,” sheriff’s Detective Cynthia Valencia said. It appeared the arsonist spread gasoline around in the rear portion of the warehouse before lighting it on fire.
The intent of the arsonists appeared to be to destroy the building, but they were thwarted by the businesses’ fire-suppression system, she added.
“(The) sprinkler system did a great job,” Valencia said.
Preliminary estimated of the damage cause to the warehouse, as well as the paper plates, paper cups and other similar items stored inside ranged between $300,000 and $500,000, the detective said.
A subleased portion of the warehouse, which is used as a packaging business, was unscathed, she said.
Investigators continued seeking clues Thursday, and trying to determine who would want to torch the warehouse, Valencia said.
The arsonists were described only as two men, driving a sedan.
“The owner is very cooperative,” Valencia said.
Firefighters remained at the scene until about noon, Wright said.
Any witnesses, or anyone who saw anything suspicious early Wednesday morning is asked to contact Detective Valencia at the sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail at 323-881-7500. Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.
COVINA >> Authorities Wednesday released the identity of an elderly woman who died Friday in a fire at her home labeled “suspicious” by homicide detectives.
Helen Lambert, 89, died at the scene of the fire, which ignited about 2 p.m. at the home she shared with her grandson in the 20900 block of Mesarica Road, in an unincorporated county area near Covina, according to Los Angeles County sheriff’s and coroner officials.
Her charred remains were discovered by firefighters as they extinguished the blaze, which was primarily isolated to a bedroom toward the rear of the home.
An officials cause of death was yet to be determined by coroner’s investigators, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner. An autopsy has been completed, however, the cause of death has been deferred pending additional investigation.
Sheriff’s officials initially said arson was suspected in the fatal fire.
Lt. Steve Jauch of the sheriff’s Homicide Bureau later described the fire as “suspicious” in nature, but declined to discuss what about the fire caught the attention of investigators. No arrests have been made.
The grandson, described by a friend as 18 years old, was not injured in the fire.
A friend of the grandson, 22-year-old Gabriel Garcia of Glendora, said he had just arrived to visit the grandson when his friend told him the house was on fire, and his grandmother was inside, Garcia said.
The two young men smashed a window or glass for at the rear of the home, but were unable to enter due to the extreme heat and thick smoke, Garcia said.
Anyone with information can reach the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500. Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.
— Staff writer Ruby Gonzales contributed to this report.
COVINA >> A woman died in a possible arson fire in an unincorporated county area just outside of Covina Friday afternoon, officials said.
The fire was first reported at 2:01 p.m. at a house in the 20900 block of Mesarica Road, Los Angeles County Fire Department Firefighter Humberto Agurcia said.
“The first units arrived at 2:07 p.m. and reported a single-family dwelling with smoke showing from the rear,” he said. The fire was extinguished 15 minutes later.
Sheriff’s officials said firefighters entered the house, put out the fire and discovered the charred remains of an adult in a bedroom. The person was pronounced dead at the scene.
Officials initially described the victim as a woman,said the person’s gender, ethnicity and age were yet to be determined
The deadly fire was being investigated as an arson, Deputy Ryan Rouzan of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau said. But officials released no information regarding why He didn’t say why arson was suspected.
The fire primarily involved a bedroom toward the rear of the house where the remains of the victim were found.
Neighbor Steve Campanella said an elderly woman lives at the home with her grandson.
He said he didn’t know his elderly neighbor well, but would sometimes see her in her front yard. The woman and her grandson moved to the neighborhood about eight years ago, neighbors said.
Gabriel Garcia, 22, of Glendora, a friend of the 18-year-old man who lives at the home with his grandmother, said he arrived to visit the grandson as the fire was starting.
The fire was not visible from the street, he said. The grandson told Garcia the house was on fire and his grandmother was inside, Garcia said.
“We went through the back. We tried breaking in,” Garcia said. “We eventually broke (a glass door), but we couldn’t go in. It was so hot.”
Garcia said he wanted to help. He said he saw no flames, only thick smoke.
“There was so much smoke, I could barely see the bed,” he said.
Garcia said the grandson arrived shortly before him.
Both fire-cause investigators and sheriff’s homicide detectives were summoned to the scene.
Investigators continued combing over the scene for evidence Friday night.
Anyone with information can reach the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500. Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.
PHOTO by Watchara Phomicinda
PASADENA >> Police and fire department investigators are seeking an arsonist who torched a parked car in a residential neighborhood late Saturday.
The 2002 Volvo was discovered in flames just after 11 p.m. as it was parked along the street at La Tierra Street and Daisy Avenue, Pasadena Fire Department spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said.
Firefighters extinguished the fire, but the car was a total loss, she said.
Investigators determined the fire had been intentionally set, Derderian said.
No information regarding any possible suspects or motive was available as officials continued pursuing investigative leads Sunday afternoon, she said.
Anyone with information can reach Pasadena police at 626-744-4241. Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.
MONTEBELLO >> A homeless man who sparked a 384-acre wildfire in the Rio Hondo Riverbed in Montebello last year pleaded “no contest” Thursday to a charge of recklessly causing a fire, prosecutors said.
Arturo Miallan Aguilar, 46, was immediately sentenced to a year in county jail and three years of probation and ordered to attend a year-long live-in drug treatment program after entering the plea in Los Angeles Superior Court, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s officials said in a written statement. A restitution hearing was yet to be scheduled.
Aguilar sparked the fire while cooking food in the riverbed near the Whittier Narrows Reservoir about 1:30 p.m. Aug. 16, Montebello police Lt. Michael Bergman said.
The blaze quickly exploded out of control, ultimately scorching 384 acres in Montebello and nearby unincorporated county area before firefighters contained it days later. No structures were damaged.
Four firefighters suffered minor injuries while fighting the fire, including three who were hurt when a helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing at Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary in Whittier, and one who suffered heat exhaustion, officials said.
PHOTOS: [TOP] A fast moving brush,tree and bamboo fire spreads through out the Whittier Narrows Recreation area south of the 60 Freeway, Sunday, August 16, 2015. (Mike Mullen photo) [MIDDLE] Seen from Irwindale on the 605 Freeway, a fast moving brush,tree and bamboo fire spreads through out the Whittier Narrows Recreation area south of the 60 Freeway, Sunday, August 16, 2015. (Mike Mullen photo) [BELOW] A “Super Scooper” Quebec 1 scoops water to fight the Lincoln Fire burning in Montebello Hills as people cool off in the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale on Sunday, August 16, 2015. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda/ San Gabriel Valley Tribune)
DOWNEY >> A sheriff’s patrol car and more than half-a-dozen other vehicles were damaged in a suspected arson fire in the parking lot of the Lakewood Green Line Station Wednesday afternoon.
The “possible arson” took place about 12:30 p.m. at the commuter train station at 12801 Lakewood Blvd., at the 105 Freeway, according to Ramon Montenegro, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Transit Services Bureau, which patrols tran stations and lines in the county.
“We’re investigating a possible arson to several vehicles. One of our patrol cars was involved,” he said.
Detectives from the Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Bureau were summoned to the scene to assist in the investigation, Montenegro added.
Officials could not immediately confirm initial sheriff’s radio broadcasts from the scene that the patrol car was destroyed, and as many as nine additional cars in the parking lot had sustained significant damage.
Officials also could not immediately confirm reports that a possible suspect had been seen leaving the area in a pickup truck, possible fitted with one spare tire.
No injuries were reported, and no further details were available.
PASADENA >> A Pomona man sought on suspicion of killing his wife by setting her on fire on Christmas Day is in custody after police found and arrested him on a bus in Pasadena Sunday morning, authorities said.
Clarence Durell Dear, also described by police as Clarence Duwell Dear, 51, has been sought as a fugitive since Christmas Day, when he doused his wife in gasoline and set her on fire during a domestic dispute at their Pomona home, according to Pomona police Sgt. Bert Sanchez.
Pasadena police officers and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies tracked Dear down on a Metro bus at Foothill Boulevard and Halstead Street in Pasadena shortly after 10 a.m., sheriff’s officials said.
“Information was received that Clarence Duwell Dear had boarded a bus in the City of Altadena,” Pomona police officials said in a written statement. “Pasadena Police, along with Los Angels County sheriff’s deputies, responded and located the bus and took suspect Dear into custody without incident.”
Pasadena police turned Dear over to Pomona police, where he was booked on suspicion of murder.
Police in Pasadena deferred comment to their counterparts in Pomona. Pomona police released no further details regarding the case or the arrest Sunday.
Dawn Hensley, 41, died following the alleged attack, which took place about 1:45 p.m. Friday at the home the victim and suspect shared in the 1500 block of Cordova Street in Pomona, officials said.
Neighbors reported she fled from her home engulfed in flames and collapsed in the street, Sanchez said.
She was taken to a hospital where she soon succumbed to her injuries.
An autopsy was yet to be carried out Sunday, coroner’s officials said.
Dear has no criminal convictions listed in Los Angeles Superior Court records.
He was being held in lieu of $1 million bail at the Pomona Police Department’s jail pending his initial court appearance, scheduled Tuesday in Pomona Superior Court, records show.
POMONA >> Police are seeking a man they say killed his wife by dousing her with gasoline and setting her on fire at their Pomona home on Christmas Day.
Clarence Duwell Dear, 51, of Pomona remained at large and was considered “extremely dangerous” Friday night, according to Pomona police Sgt. Bert Sanchez.
Dawn Hensley, 41, died in the alleged attack, police officials said.
The alleged attack took place about 1:45 p.m. in the 1500 block of Cordova Street, police said.
“It appears that during a domestic dispute, (Dear) chased the victim from their residence and was able to douse the victim with gasoline,” Sanchez said in a written statement. “The suspect then ignited the victim, possibly with a lit cigarette.”
“Neighbors who saw the victim run from the residence engulfed in flames rendered assistance as she collapsed on the street and remained with her until LA County Fire personnel arrived,” the sergeant said.
Paramedics took Hensley to a hospital with severe burns, officials said. She died a short time later.
Dear fled from the scene and hasn’t been found, Sanchez said. It was unclear whether he fled on foot, or had access to another form of transportation.
Dear is described as black, 5 feet 10 inches tall, 170 pounds, with black and gray hair and brown eyes.
Anyone who sees Dear, or anyone with information, is asked to contact their local police agency or Pomona police at 909-622-1241.
Tips may also be submitted anonymously through L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers by calling 800-222-8477.
PHOTO of Clarence Duwell Dear, 51, of Pomona courtesy of the Pomona Police Department.