She was always bundled up, like a walking mummy. Even on hot days.
She didn’t talk much. She liked to keep to herself. She didn’t like attention drawn to her.
But the 67-year-old woman known as Violet—who walked around for years in the Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks communities—became the center of attention Thursday when she was brutally attacked—set on fire as she slept on a bus bench at the busy intersection of Sherman Way and Van Nuys Boulevard.
“She didn’t say much, but she was very kind,” said Joan Mann of Sherman Oaks, who spent Christmas Eve services with Violet at the First Lutheran Church in Van Nuys. “I have tried to help Violet in the past, but she would politely turn me down—politely, mind you.”
Mann has lived in Sherman Oaks for 47 years, and has seen the homeless population in the area increase greatly. Now she is scared and wants her daughter to move in with her.
“I’ve never been as afraid of my neighborhood and this area as much as now,” said Mann, who has seen Violet come to her church for the past three years. “I have tried to get her to come over to my house a few times, but she always said she didn’t want to be any bother.”
Mann said the Rev. Erik Loza of the First Lutheran Church in Van Nuys has been at the hospital with Violet since the attack.
The woman was listed in critical condition at a local hospital with burns all over her body, said Lt. Damian Gutierrez of the Los Angeles Police Department's Van Nuys Station.
The attack occurred around 1 a.m. An eyewitness said the suspect purchased a bottle of liquid, possibly rubbing alcohol, at a Walgreen's a short distance from the bench. He came out of the store and doused the sleeping woman with a flammable liquid and lit her on fire.
"He just poured it all over the old lady, then he threw a match on her,
and then started running,'' said the eyewitness, Erickson Pina, who said the
suspect also threatened him with a knife.
Police arrested a suspect shortly after the attack, aided by Pina who said he called 911 and followed the man. The suspect, Dennis Petillo, 24, was booked into jail for suspicion of attempted murder, with bail set at $500,000.
Police have not yet officially identified Violet, but people who have passed by her for years in the area know her well.
One longtime resident of Sherman Oaks said she has known Violet for more than a decade, and a few times the homeless woman stayed at her home when the outside temperatures dipped below freezing.
“She could be a bit stubborn, but she was never mean,” said the friend, who said she was afraid to give out her name. “But I’ll tell you that she didn’t deserve this. She didn’t ask to be set on fire like this.
“I knew of a homeless man who was set on fire like this years ago in Sherman Oaks," the friend said. "Things like this have happened before, but now they happen a lot more often.”
News of the attack spread quickly and people who knew Violet came to the bus bench with flowers and signs to show their support for her. Some of them shared what they knew about her with a Patch reporter.
Violet didn’t talk much about herself, they said. When she did talk, she asked about others. She wanted to know about their families, their situations, and why they wanted to talk to her.
“She was a bit suspicious of people she didn’t know,” said Sonia Mendibles, a housing rights advocate who works with San Fernando Valley homeless people, and who was once homeless herself. “I tried to talk to her a few times, but she didn’t want to talk to me because I was strange to her. She didn’t trust strangers.”
Mendibles was carrying a sign of protest at the bus stop bench where plastic flowers were used to fill the hole that burned through the area where Violet was set on fire. The area still smelled of smoke.
Mendibles pointed to the hole burned completely through the bench.
“Nobody deserves this,” Mendibles said. “This shouldn’t happen to anyone. But the most frightening thing is that if it were just a short time ago, this could have been me.”
"We've tried to get her off the bench for years," neighbor Robert Wyneken told ABC7, "and she absolutely refuses. It was her home.... The people around here know her and admire her and love her."
Paul Dumont of the Sober Living Network in Santa Monica said he planned to stage a demonstration with other homeless activists at the bus bench Thursday at 6 p.m.
“We need to protect the homeless,” Dumont said. “We need to advocate for sensible shared living housing or else more tragic incidents like this will happen.”