CASTRO VALLEY -- White tulips and orchids line the front porch of the gutted, boarded-up house on the quiet Castro Valley cul-de-sac where Barbara Latiolais and her partner, Michael J. Rice, lived.
Inside the home at 2431 San Carlos Ave., police say 58-year-old Latiolais drew her last breath at the hands of a coldblooded killer on Oct. 18. She was brutally beaten by someone who may have slipped in through an unlocked door or window, who left her body to be found by fire crews after the home was set ablaze -- apparently by her attacker.
Neighbors, still absorbing information released Tuesday about Latiolais' violent death, questioned why anyone would want to harm the retired woman. They described her as a kind and peaceful person.
"She was really a sweet lady," her neighbor Doug Graham said Wednesday as he glanced at her home from across the street on the tidy cul-de-sac of about two dozen homes with neatly landscaped lawns. "It's really a beautiful street. Well, it was until this happened."
Latiolais lived at the home with her longtime partner, Rice, 60, a retired San Francisco firefighter and the home's owner.
Rice was in Utah at the time and is not a suspect in the killing, which one deputy called one of the "most violent" he has ever seen.
Graham expressed shock at the horror that struck his street. The night of the slaying, he awoke to bright lights flashing outside his bedroom windows. He looked outside and saw firetrucks and, shortly after, a detective knocked at his door.
Neither he nor his wife had noticed anything unusual that evening, he said he told the detective.
Graham called his neighbors peaceful people who lived in the home with their two dogs and two cats. They'd been together 30 years, he said. She was a retired homemaker. He was quiet and soft-spoken.
"They stayed to themselves pretty much," Graham said. "It's a shame."
Alameda County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. J.D. Nelson said Latiolais was brutally attacked and killed in the home, and that the fire was intentionally set. An accelerant, he said, was used to start the blaze.
Police said a man, who has not been identified, stole the couple's black 2006 Volvo station wagon from their driveway shortly after the 12:15 a.m. fire. The car was found several hours later at the end of Brookdale Boulevard in Castro Valley. Police declined to say if they lifted any usable fingerprints from the car. Nelson said there were valuables taken from the home but declined to say what.
Police believe neighbors or someone in the area may have seen the man, described as in his late teens or early 20s, near the home or leaving it. Nelson said the man may not have acted alone.
Police did not say how the man entered the home, but a Bay Area heat wave last week may have prompted the victim to leave windows or doors open, Nelson said.
"We have no reason to believe that (she) let the suspect in the house," he said.
On Wednesday the killing remained under investigation, Nelson said.
Graham, who said he is also retired, said Rice is staying with his brother somewhere in the Bay Area until he finds a place to live.
"He's in shock. Can you imaging getting that call? How could he not be?" he said.
Anyone with information about the case may call the Sheriff's Office at 510-667-3636.
Reporter Kristin Bender contributed to this report. Contact Natalie Neysa Alund at 510-293-2469. Follow her at Twitter.com/nataliealund.