Exact cause of 60 Freeway hydrogen truck fire a mystery

FREEWAYFOLO

HACIENDA HEIGHTS — Details continued to emerge Friday regarding a hydrogen-hauling big rig that erupted into flames on the 60 Freeway in Hacienda Heights, however the total destruction of the truck made it impossible to determine the exact cause of the fire, officials said.
The blaze in eastbound traffic lanes near Hacienda Boulevard drew a massive emergency response and forced the closure of both directions of the 60 Freeway for more than six hours, California Highway Patrol and Los Angeles County Fire Department officials said.
The driver of the truck, a 39-year-old San Bernardino woman, escaped from her burning big rig unscathed, CHP Officer Joe Zizi said.
Officials intended to impound the charred truck, which displayed logos of the company Praxair, and thoroughly examine it to determine exactly what caused the fire, officials said. The truck was based out of Ontario.
“Unfortunately, the entire cab of the truck was burned to the ground,” he said. But officials suspected the fire was related to an engine problem.
With not enough truck left to examine, “We have to take the driver’s word for it that there was a pop in the engine,” Zizi said. Fire officials confirmed that the fire originated in the front section of the cab.
“(The driver) was able to get out before it got fully engulfed,” Zizi said. “The tried to get the fire extinguisher, but couldn’t get to it because of the flames.”
But the driver was able to quickly inform authorities that the truck contained 4,000 pounds of highly flammable compressed hydrogen gas, he said.
“The heat of the engine fire impinged on the trailer, and caused the pressure release piping to leak,” Zizi said. A pressure valve melted, and two pipes began leaking hydrogen gas, which ignited.
“There was 3 to 4 feet of flames coming from the hydrogen tanks,” Zizi said. “Fortunately, it wasn’t compromised completely.”
Fire Capt. Scott Miller said firefighters took a “defensive” stance as they poured water on the burning tractor-trailer for several hours. Even after the flames were extinguished, firefighters continued hosing down the tanks to make sure they had cooled entirely.
Officials allowed all of the remaining hydrogen to vent from the tanks before moving the big rig.
And although the big rig fire snarled traffic throughout the area and tied up emergency personnel for hours, “In a worst-case scenario, it could have been very terrible,” Zizi said. “Everybody did a great job.”
New York-based Praxair has a “satisfactory” rating with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The company consists of 749 drivers, and has better-than-average safety statistics in all categories.

PHOTO courtesy of the L.A. County Fire Department

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UPDATED: Big rig hauling hydrogen tanks catches fire on 60 Freeway in Hacienda Heights

FREEWAY IC

HACEINDA HEIGHTS — A big rig believed to be hauling compressed hydrogen cylinders caught fire on the 60 Freeway in Hacienda Heights Thursday afternoon, prompting authorities to shut down both directions of the freeway.
The fire was reported just before 2:50 p.m. on the eastbound side of the freeway near Hacienda Boulevard, according to California Highway Patrol logs. The truck was hauling long cylinders believed to contain compressed hydrogen
Firefighters pumped water onto the fire from a distance, and CHP officers kept traffic well away from the burning big rig, diverting motorists off at nearby exits.
Eastbound traffic was initially being diverted at the Seventh Avenue offramp, however officials ultimately closed eastbound traffic all the way back to the 605 Freeway, CHP Officer Patrick Kimball said. Westbound traffic was being diverted of the 60 Freeway at Azusa Avenue, creating a mile-long buffer between the fire and freeway traffic.
The fire was largely extinguished by 4 p.m., however authorities still considered the trailer to pose a risk of potential explosion, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said.
“Where we stand right now, we’re still cooling the tanks, letting the tanks vent into the atmosphere,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Scott Miller said shortly before 4:30 p.m.
Once the tanks were emptied, he said, officials hoped to start working to move the scorched remains of the truck and reopen the freeway.
No injuries were reported in connection with the fire, Miller said.
Deputies were preparing to evacuate homes if necessary along residential streets, particularly those just south of the truck fire.
It was unclear how long the freeway would remain closed as a result of the fire.

PHOTO courtesy of the Los Angeles County Fire Department

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Alleged auto thieves arrested in Hacienda Heights

HHAUTOTHEFTHACIENDA HEIGHTS — Deputies arrested a man and woman Wednesday after they abandoned a stolen car and fled into a Hacienda Heights neighborhood, authorities said.
An automated license place reader alerted deputies that a car heading north on Hacienda Boulevard through Hacienda Heights had been reported stolen Monday in La Habra, Sgt. R. Thurlo of the sheriff’s Industry Station said.
A sheriff’s helicopter quickly arrived overhead and deputies on board watched a man driving the car and a female passenger abandoned the vehicle on La Subida Drive, just west of Hacienda Boulevard, and flee on foot, the sergeant said.
Deputies set up a search perimeter and soon found the driver down in a nearby wash area, Thurlo said. He was arrested without a struggle and taken to a hospital for treatment of a foot or ankle injury apparently suffered as he fled into the wash.
The female suspect was found hiding in some nearby bushes and also arrested without a struggle, Thurlo said. Both were expected to be booked on suspicion of auto theft.
Their names were not available Wednesday pending the booking process.

PHOTO courtesy of the sheriff’s Industry Station.

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La Habra woman killed, Hacienda Heights woman arrested in Whittier Blvd. hit-and-run

Police arrested a Hacienda Heights woman after she struck two women who were crossing Whittier Boulevard in La Habra with her car — fatally injuring one of them — before leading officers on a chase that ended in a crash, authorities said.
Caroline Kim, 20, was expected to be booked on suspicion of hit-and-run, evading police and vehicular manslaughter once released from the hospital, where she remained under observation Saturday, La Habra police Sgt. Clint Angle said.
Orange County coroner’s did not release the dead woman’s name, however police initially described her as a 38-year-old La Habra resident, Angle said.
She was crossing Whittier Boulevard at Rigsby Street just before 9 p.m. with another woman when both pedestrians were struck by a Cadillac sedan, Angle said.
“They were crossing northbound,” the sergeant said. “The suspect was westbound on Whittier Boulevard.”
The 38-year-old woman suffered major injuries and was taken to the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, where she died from her injuries a short time later, Angle said.
The other woman struck by the car suffered injuries to both of her feet, officials added.
An acquaintance of the women who witnessed the crash sprained his ankle while rushing to assist but was not struck but he Cadillac, Angle said. The man was also taken to a hospital by paramedics.
The car that struck the women fled the scene.
But Whittier police soon received a call from a motorist who was following the alleged hit-and-run driver.
Whittier Police Lt. Steve Dean said officers picked up the vehicle on Colima Road, but she refused to pull over. The car reached speeds as high as 90 mph.
The chase ended on Countrywood Avenue and Pepper Brook Way in Hacienda Heights when the Cadillac hit a parked car, and officers took Kim into custody, Dean said.
The driver told officers she was fine and didn’t want to be transported to a hospital, the lieutenant said. But paramedics took the woman to a hospital as a precaution.
The circumstances of the initial hit-and-run remained under investigation by La Habra police traffic investigators.

- Brian Day and Ruby Gonzales

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Two men wounded in Hacienda Heights stabbing

HACIENDA HEIGHTS — Deputies were left with a mystery when two men with stab wounds turned up at a commercial area Wednesday.
Someone who was in Gale Avenue and Hacienda Boulevard reported an assault with a deadly weapon and robbery at 7:35 p.m., Lt. Ray Enriquez said.
Enriquez said deputies searched the area but couldn’t find evidence of an attack. Where the stabbing happened and what led to it remain unclear.
The victims were uncooperative and kept changing the story, he said.
Both were taken to hospitals. Enriquez said one man had a slight puncture wound to the liver and was admitted to the hospital for observation.
He thinks the second man has been released from the hospital.

- Ruby Gonzales

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Man accused of pipe attack in Hacienda Heights

HACIENDA HEIGHTS — A man was arrested Thursday for allegedly attacking another man with a metal pipe and a cinder block.
Sheriff’s officials said the victim and the suspect are both transients.
At 6:15 p.m., a caller reported people hitting each other with baseball bats behind a fast food restaurant on Gale Avenue and Hacienda Boulevard in Hacienda Heights.
Deputies found out a different tale.
Lt. Ray Enriquez said two transients argued behind another restaurant in the 1100 block of South Hacienda Boulevard at 6 p.m. One of the men is 20 while the other is about 40.
The older transient told the younger man, who was drunk, to leave, according to Enriquez.
The 20-year-old then hit him with a pipe and cinder block.
Enriquez said the victim sustained lacerations to his head and arm. He was taken to Citrus Valley Medical Center – Queen of the Valley Campus.
Michael Zubia, 20, was arrested and booked on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. Booking records show he is being held at the sheriff’s Industry station on a $30,000 bail.
Zubia is scheduled for a Wednesday arraignment at El Monte Superior Court.

- Ruby Gonzales

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UDPATED: Son accused of murder in death of Hacienda Heights woman whose body was found in car trunk

Vilma Chau, 63, of Hacienda HeightsDetectives Friday announced the arrest the son of a woman whose body was discovered bound in the trunk of her car at her Hacienda Heights home on suspicion of her murder, authorities said.
Clifton Huang, 43, of Hacienda Heights is accused of the slaying of his 63-year-old mother, whose body was discovered shortly after 9:30 a.m. Thursday in the garage of her home in the 15000 block of Las Tunas Drive, Lt. Mike Rosson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau said.
The dead woman was identified as Vilma Lai-Chuen Chau, Los Angeles County Department of Coroner Assistant Chief of Operations Ed Winter said.
A specific motive in the slaying was not clear, Rosson said, however family indicated the mother and son “argued often.”
The mother had taken out a restraining order against her son, however he continued to visit her on a regular basis, according to sheriff’s investigators and neighbors.
It was not clear Friday how Chau died, Rosson. An autopsy was pending.
“There were no obvious signs of trauma on the body,” Rosson said.
An autopsy was pending, Winter added.
It initially appeared Chau made have been dead for about three days, though coroner’s officials would make a more exact determination at autopsy.
Family members who became concerned after not seeing Chau in several days were the first to discover her body, the lieutenant said. Huang was at the home when they checked on a strong odor emanating from the garage and discovered Chau’s body, which was bound with rope inside the trunk of her Mercedes-Benz.
The family members immediately called deputies from the sheriff’s Industry Station, who arrived and confirmed the grisly find, Rosson said.
Huang was still at the home when deputies arrived and was detained, sheriff’s officials said.
He cooperated with detectives as he was held on suspicion of a probation violation, Rosson said. He was believed to be on probation for a drug conviction.
Detectives obtained a search warrant for Chau’s home and made their way in Thursday afternoon to look for clues, he said.
“Evidence was recovered inside the residence,” Rosson said.
Detectives arrested Huang on suspicion of murder about 11 p.m., according to sheriff’s booking records.
Rosson said deputies had responded to the home before regarding domestic violence issues.
Huang lived in another home in Hacienda Heights, which was also owned by his mother, Rosson said.
Huang has a lengthy criminal history in Los Angels County dating back to 2001, with convictions including false imprisonment and dissuading a witness, according to Los Angeles County Superior Court records.
He was most recently convicted of drug possession and being under the influence of drugs in October of 2009, records show. He was also convited of drug possession in march of 2009.
Huang was convicted of drug possession, being under the influence of drugs, possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting or obstructing police in May of 2006.
In January of 2004, Huang was convicted of false imprisonment and dissuading a witness, records show. Further details on the incident for which he was convicted in 2004 were not available.
He was convicted of soliciting prostitution in January of 2003, and possession of drug paraphernalia in April of 2003.
In December of 2001, Huang was convicted of drug possession, and he was convicted in October of 2001 of driving on private property without permission.
Neighbors described Chau as a friendly local real estate agent who largely kept to herself.
Andy Wang, a neighbor who said he gave her Tai Chi lessons on weekends, said she had lived in the neighborhood for more than 15 years.
Neighbors added they saw Chau’s son visiting her regularly.
According to booking records, Huang was being held in lieu of $2 million bail pending his scheduled arraignment Tuesday in El Monte Superior Court.

PHOTO of Vilma Chau courtesy of the DMV.

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Woman’s body found bound in trunk of car in Hacienda Heights

Detectives launched a homicide investigation Thursday after a report of a kidnapping led deputies to discover a woman’s body in the garage of a Hacienda Heights home, apparently bound and inside the trunk of a car.
Relatives of a resident of the home at Las Tunas Drive and Avocado Terrace became worried after not hearing from her and decided to check on her about 9:30 a.m., Lt. Mike Rosson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau said.
HHBODY2The family members saw something that roused their suspicion to the point that believe the resident of the home was being kidnapped, he said.
“Industry Station deputies received a call of a possible kidnapping in progress. That led deputies here,” Rosson said. What the family members saw that caused them to call authorities was not clear.
“At that time, they detained a male, and they also discovered a deceased female inside the location’s garage,” the lieutenant said.
He declined to comment on initial reports from the scene that the woman had been found bound and in the trunk of a car.
The woman had not been identified Thursday afternoon, and investigators had not yet had a chance to speak with family members. The woman was described by officials and neighbors as an Asian woman of about 60 years old.
The man who deputies encountered at the home, described as an Asian man in his late-30s or 40s and possible related to the dead woman, cooperated with investigators, Rosson said.
The detained man was “being questioned as a person of interest at this time, Rosson said. He had not been named a suspect in the slaying.
“The investigation is in its very, very early stages.” The lieutenant added.
Rosson said detectives did not believe the man lived at the home where the body was found, but possible visited on a regular basis.
Detectives were still waiting on a search warrant to enter home Thursday afternoon, he added.
Deputies had responded to calls in the past at the home including “domestic issues” and “maybe mental health issues,” Rosson said. He did not have further details.
Neighbors said a real estate agent lived at the home. Her husband was also believed to live there, and the couple’s adult son was often seen.
Pending an officials identification of the woman, neighbors hoped that the victim was not their longtime friend, who they said had lived in the neighborhood for more than 15 years.
Neighbor Rene Garciacano recalled seeing something that struck him as suspicious about 7:30 a.m. Thursday when he passed the house while bringing his children to school.
“The garage door was up,” he said, adding that the door has always been down in the past.
Garciacano said there were helicopters overhead when he returned home about 10 a.m.
When he turned on television news to see what was happening, “I recognized the house immediately,” Garciacano said.
The neighbor added he hoped the woman found dead was no his neighbor.
“She’s a very nice lady. She keeps to herself,” he said. Though neighborhood residents tend to be private, “She is a well-respected lady in this neighborhood.”
Andy Wang said he teaches Tai Chi to the woman who lives at the home every Saturday, and he, too, hoped she was okay.
He said he had seen the woman’s son visiting her on several occasions, and was not aware of any trouble in her household.
To see a massive sheriff’s investigation at his friend’s home, then learn a woman had been found dead there, “I’m shocked.”
“She is a nice lady,” he said.

VIDEO by Brian Day., PHOTO by Walt Mancini

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Man sentenced for arson fire that destroyed sanctuary of Hacienda Heights church

7-19-13 SHIGASENTENCE01

A judge sentenced man to 18 years to life in prison Friday for lighting an arson fire that destroyed the sanctuary of a Catholic Church in Hacienda Heights on April 16 of 2011.
A Pomona Superior Court jury earlier this month convicted Gregory Yusuke Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights of five felony counts related to the arson fire that caused about $9 million worth of damage at St. John Vianney Church, 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road.
Two priests sleeping in a rectory that also caught fire adjacent to the destroyed sanctuary narrowly escaped from the building, according to prosecutors and investigators.
“I never got the impression from Mr. Shiga that he was remorseful for his actions or their effect on a large community that cared deeply about that place,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose, who prosecuted the case.
She went on to request Judge Thomas Falls hand down the maximum sentences for the charges under the law, describing Shiga as a continuing threat to the public.
Falls agreed, imposing the maximum sentence of 18 years to life in prison.
Shiga was convicted of aggravated arson, arson of a structure, arson of an inhabited structure, possession of an incendiary device and burglary. The jury also found true special allegations that multiple structures were burned, the fire was likely to cause injury and that an accelerant was used in the arson.
Shiga is eligible to receive 15 percent credit for good behavior while incarcerated for eight years of his prison sentence. However he must serve 10 years in full, without reductions for good behavior, Rose explained. She estimated Shiga will first become eligible for a parole hearing in about 16 years.
Shiga previously underwent a mental evaluation which determined he was fit to stand trial, though officials said Shiga adamantly denied suffering from any form of mental illness, according to Los Angeles Archdiocese Canonical Auditor Marty Gallagher, a former FBI agent who worked alongside church officials and law enforcement officials during the investigation.
Against the judge’s advice, Shiga fired his defense attorney and chose to represent himself just before his trial began, officials said. But Falls said Shiga had shown he was aware of what was going on and even complimented him on his courtroom demeanor and knowledge.
When asked by Judge Falls if he had a statement to make prior to receiving his sentence Friday, Shiga responded that he did.
“It’s 9:17 a.m. July 19th. That’s about it,” he said.
Shiga, who was described by investigators as highly intelligent, “is fixated with numbers,” Rose said.
Among other tattoos not visible in the courtroom, Shiga had the number seven tattooed on top of his left hand, and the number nine tattooed on top of his right hand.
The significance of the numbers was unclear, other than they appeared to be his favorites, according to an investigator.
Shiga broke into the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Church shortly after midnight on the week before Easter, Yoshino said.
He brought with him a backpack containing eight to ten rolls of toilet paper that had been soaked in flammable liquid, he said. The specific substance or substances used were not available.
He placed the fuel-soaked toilet paper rolls as “strategic” locations within the sanctuary, Yoshino said.
He opened up every other window in the sanctuary to help the fire spread faster, Rose said.
Using a sprayer similar to the type used for spraying weeds, Shiga then sprayed the ceiling and walls of the church with flammable liquid before using a tiki torch to set the structure ablaze, Rose said. The sanctuary was quickly engulfed with flames, which also spread to the occupied rectory next door where two priests were sleeping upstairs.
Following his arrest more than a year after the fire, Rose said investigators found Shiga had visited and photographed the church before the arson fire.
A break in the case came when a former school teacher of Shiga’s came forward to report a suspicious encounter with Shiga prior to the arson, Rose said.
Barbara Clark taught Shiga about 20 years ago when he attended St. Mark’s Lutheran School in Hacienda Heights, according to the prosecutor.
Her former pupil arrived at the campus about two weeks prior to the arson, where Clark was principal, Rose said. He spoke to her and asked many questions about St. John Vianney Church and the symbolism behind its statues and other items.
“It didn’t mean much to her at the time,” Rose said. But following the massive fire, Clark decided to report the encounter to authorities.
Witnesses shown photographic line-ups including Shiga then identified him as the arsonist, she said. He was arrested May 14, 2012.
Beyond a general grievance against the Catholic Church, of which Shiga was never a member, a definitive motive was not revealed through the trial, according to Sgt. Derek Yoshino of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail. Sheriff’s investigators, along with FBI agents, investigated the case.
“He indicated he wanted to make a statement against the Catholic Church,” Yoshino said. But the arsonist never elaborated.
“It was pretty general,” the sergeant said. “At this point, we’re left to assume what his actual motive was.”
Rose said while Shiga may have claimed to have complaints regarding the church in an attempt to justify the crimes, it was always about Shiga himself.
“I think he did it for the attention,” Rose said.
Even as he waited to be sentenced to prison, Shiga seemed to enjoy being the focus of attention. He appeared pleased to see reporters in the courtroom.
Sentencings normally are not carried out so quickly following a trial, Falls said. “The defendant requested a speedy sentencing.”
In addition to sentencing Shiga to prison, Falls ordered him to pay the church $8.9 million in restitution, though he acknowledged the convict would likely never be able to pay it.
St. John Vianney Church Rev. Msgr. Tim Nichols accepted the amount on behalf of the church.
Gallagher thanked the sheriff’s, FBI and district attorney’s office officials for their hard work in the case.
“Thank God there were no deaths,” he said. It’s a tragic event. It could have been horrendous.”

PHOTO of Gregory Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights during sentencing on Friday, July 19, 2013, in Pomona Superior Court. He was convicted of a massive $9 million arson that destroyed the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights. (Staff photo by Walt Mancini)

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Hacienda Heights man among those arrested in federal sting targeting sales of endangered species

A Hacienda Heights man is among six Southern Californians indicted Wednesday following a federal sting targeting online sales of endangered species.
Rene De La Peza, 42, of Hacienda Heights, is accused of selling the skin of a jaguar, which is an endangered species, to an undercover agent for $15,000, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rupa Goswami said.
Jaguars, the largest cat found in the Americas, has been on the endangered species list for four decades, officials said. If convicted as charges, De La Peza faces up to a year in federal prison.
Five other defendants have been indicted in Southern California through “Operation Wild Web,” Goswami said.
Nationwide, the bust netted 131 arrested in the United States, and seven internationally, the prosecutor added.
Operation Wild Web was designed to disrupt the trafficking of illegal wildlife on the Internet,” U.S. Attorney’s Office Thom Mrozek said in a written statement. “Across the United States, the Wild Web task force conducted more than 150 undercover purchases of endangered wildlife over the course of two weeks last August,” Mrozek added.
Items sold ranged from bear skins to parts from Javan eagles, officials said.
While the trade of endangered animals and their parts is not new, Goswami said the growing online market is now increasingly flooded with the illicit items.
“The ease and the anonymity of the Internet allows these sales to increase,” she said.
Also indicted in Southern California Thursday were:
*Hanna Karim, 44, and his wife Margarita Licomitros, both of Huntington Beach, on suspicion of selling a Sumatran tiger pelt
*Michael Roy McIntire, 59, of Encino, on suspicion of selling three protected birds — a canvasback, a cinnamon teal and a mallard
*Rodrigo Macedo, 29, of Hesperia, on suspicion of selling two protected Western Scrub Jays
*Lewis Keister, 42, of Los Angeles, on suspicion of selling a pair of seal fur moccasins, as well as a Native American doll believed to be made from whale bone and a bag made of seal fur
De La Peza and the other defendants were ordered to appear in federal court for arraignment Aug. 8.
“Hopefully, (Operation Wild Web) will help keep endangered animals safe in the wild,” Goswami said.

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