VAN NUYS - The man accused of setting a homeless woman on fire while she slept on a bus bench pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of attempted murder and aggravated mayhem.
Dennis Petillo, 24, appeared at the Van Nuys courthouse four days after he was arrested for allegedly pouring a flammable liquid on the 67-year-old woman and setting her on fire around 1 a.m. Thursday at Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way.
Witnesses told news reporters that Petillo went into a Walgreens store at the intersection and purchased what may have been rubbing alcohol, then walked out of the store and doused the woman with it.
He then threw a match on her and ran, they said.
A witness said he called 911, then followed the man until police arrived and arrested the suspect. An area resident told news crews the woman lived on the bus bench for years.
Police have withheld the victim's name, but people in the neighborhood and at First Lutheran Church of Van Nuys said they knew her as Violet.
She remains hospitalized in critical but stable condition, according to the District Attorney's Office.
Pastor Erik Loza of First Lutheran said he visited her at the Los Angeles County-USC Burn Center on Monday and was told "she's not out of the woods yet."
"It looks like they are going to have to do some skin grafting. Her face was burned," he said.
Loza said Violet attended the 4 p.m. Spanish service each Sunday and the
He said he knew very little about her, except that she had two grown children.
"She was a sweet lady," he said. "She didn't talk a lot. Because of her situation, because of her age, you might think she was constantly asking for help. But she would never ask us for anything. She never asked for money."
Laza said the church is accepting monetary donations and even blankets for Violet, who may face a long recovery. Donations can be made to First Lutheran Church of Van Nuys, Attention: Help for Violet, 6952 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys, CA 91405.
If convicted, Petillo faces up to life in prison, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office said.