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Man pleads not guilty to burning woman

Jan. 3, 2013 at 4:41 PM

VAN NUYS, Calif., Jan. 3 (UPI) -- The California man accused of dousing a homeless woman with flammable liquid and setting her on fire as she slept pleaded not guilty, police said.

Dennis Petillo, 24, appeared at the Van Nuys, Calif., courthouse four days after police charged him with attempted murder and aggravated mayhem. He faces possible life in prison if convicted, the Los Angeles Daily News said Thursday. Police said Petillo entered a Walgreens store and purchased what they now believe was rubbing alcohol, then doused the homeless woman neighbors said was know only as Violet as she slept on a bus stop bench. He then allegedly tossed a match on the woman and ran, witnesses said.

The pastor at nearby First Lutheran Church of Van Nuys said Violet, 67, had lived at the bus stop for years. She attended weekend services at the church and a weekly free will breakfast, though she largely kept to herself.

"She was a sweet lady," the Rev. Erik Loza 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."

She remains hospitalized and faces a grueling recovery that likely includes skin grafts to address burning on her face, Loza said.

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