UPDATE: Pastor Erik Loza says that he visited Violet Phillips today in the hospital. She is still in critical condition, with burns on her face. See how you can donate to Violet through the church below.
I saw Violet tonight. The nurse on duty said she could not tell me anything about her condition though. Violet's face is burned, but it's not black, just a dark brown, like the color of a deep sun tan. She opened her eyes when I said her name and moved her arms around for a bit. Then she closed her eyes and I just spoke to her, read to her from the Bible and prayed for her.
Thank you for all your work. I pray that many people find it in their hearts to help Violet.
Violet Phillips, the 67-year-old homeless woman who was lit on fire while sleeping on a bus bench in Van Nuys early Thursday morning, remains in critical condition at a local hospital, suffering burns on her face and third-degree burns on other parts of her body.
“She does not have the third-degree burns on her face, but she did suffer some burns on her face," said Rev. Erik Loza of the First Lutheran Church of Van Nuys, who has known Phillips for the past four years. "And thankfully, she is not in the risk of dying at this point.”
On Friday afternoon, dozens of people congregated around the bus bench adding flowers and signs, asking each other for any news about the victim.
Phillips is about 5 feet tall with gray-blond, short-cropped hair. She always bundled herself up in layers of jackets and sweaters, and she sometimes used newspapers as added insulation inside her clothing and shoes, friends said.
Phillips was sleeping on the bus bench at Sherman Way and Van Nuys Boulevard at about 1 a.m. Thursday when the attack occurred.
Erickson Ipina, an eyewitness to the attack, said he saw a man walk out of the nearby Walgreens with a bottle that looked like rubbing alcohol. “He just poured it all over the old lady," Ipina said. "Then he threw the match on her and started running.”
Ipana ran after the suspect and called 9-1-1. The suspect pulled a knife and threatened him, Ipina said, but police soon arrived and took the suspect into custody.
Police said they arrested Dennis Petillo, 24, on suspicion of attempted murder, and he was being held on $500,000 bail.
Petillo served a two-year prison sentence for car theft and pleaded guilty to a similar crime in 2008, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. On Dec. 22, Petillo was arrested by Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies who patrol Metro trains and booked on suspicion of “blocking free movement” on the light-rail lines.
After Thursday's attack, Phillips was transported to two burn units. The First Lutheran Church was notified of her condition, Rev. Loza said, but neither hospital allowed him to visit her. Later, she was allowed one visitor, and it was Pastor Loza.
A spokeswoman from the University of Southern California Burn Unit said on Friday that Phillips was in the intensive care section of the hospital. Police are still trying to locate her relatives. (Other media outlets have reported her name as Flo Parker, which Loza said is incorrect.)
“We know that she has two grown children: a son in Arizona who is a police officer, and a daughter who lives somewhere in California,” Rev. Loza said.
Loza has known Phillips ever since she came to a program for homeless people that he began several months after moving to the area five years ago. She is highly suspicious of strangers and normally refuses to speak to people she doesn’t know, he said.
Ulmira Loza, the pastor’s wife who also befriended Phillips, said, “She didn’t like it when we pressed her for personal information. She would not come to the church for a few weeks if we asked too much about her past.”
Pastor Joe Small of the Church of the Way in Santa Clarita attended to Phillips on Thursday when she was first admitted to Providence Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills. He said he spoke and prayed with her, but she would only say “God bless you” in reply to people's questons. She was then transferred to the USC Burn Unit.
At First Lutheran Church's community breakfast at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Loza said, he planned to ask Phillips' other friends and homeless people if they know more about her. They will also pray for her and collect items for her, he said.
The congregation is collecting blankets and clothing for Phillips. Loza said anyone wishing to donate money could bring it or mail it to the church at 6952 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys, CA 91405. Checks should be made out to "First Lutheran Church-Violet Fund," he said. The church's phone number is (818) 989-5844.
“There have been a few other people who have contacted me about starting a fund, but I don’t know them,” Loza said. “The church will make sure that all the money and items get to Violet.”
When Loza and his family moved to Van Nuys five years ago, they started the community breakfast outreach for homeless people, and Violet was among the original dozen or so who regularly attended.
“She loved coffee,” Ulmira Loza said. “She would come with us to read the Bible. She would sometimes go out for a cigarette break and then she would come back in. Sometimes she helped us set up the chairs around the table."
Then Phillips started coming to the Spanish language services on Sunday afternoons.
“She didn’t speak Spanish, but she came to the services and sang with us even though she didn’t know the language,” Ulmira Loza said. “We would point to the pages that we were on, and she would thank us and say ‘God bless you’ and join along. I thought maybe she was trying to learn Spanish on her own.”
Congregants said they thought Phillips enjoyed the smaller attendance of the Spanish services, and she often stayed to have dinner with the pastor’s family afterward.
“This has really touched the community,” Rev. Loza said. “There are so many things to say, but I don’t want to cheapen the gravity of the situation by talking about it.
"We have known Violet for years, and it took us a while to get near her—it took a lot of work. She had a sweet smile and always said, ‘God bless you.’ … And although we didn’t know the person who did this, we pray for him, too. He is in our prayers.”
* Vigil Held for Homeless Woman Set on Fire
* Homeless Woman Set Afire on Bus Bench Is Well Known [Photos & Video]
* Man Booked for Setting Homeless Woman on Fire in Van Nuys