Neighbors of fatal fire uneasy about lack of news

AP News
Posted: Aug 25, 2011 5:55 PM
Neighbors of fatal fire uneasy about lack of news

Residents of a working-class Indiana neighborhood are searching for answers and worrying about their safety after a violent crime spree this week that left a man and his two sons dead, two women stabbed and another man dead of a suicide.

Police in Elkhart are being tight-lipped about their investigation, which is fueling worries and rumors about why someone threw a burning propane tank through a window of Jose Aguilar's house early Monday.

"I'm very nervous. I'm 79 and living by myself," said Altie Kern, who lives near the burned-out house where balloons and a cardboard cross on a basketball hoop now serve as a makeshift memorial.

Police say the fire that killed Aguilar, 37, and his sons, 13-year-old Ricardo and 6-year-old Adolfo, was arson and may have been connected to the stabbings of two women nearby. On Wednesday, they said a 31-year-old man named Francisco Macias stabbed the two women and was a person of interest in the fire because he had "direct and indirect interactions" with someone in the Aguilar house.

A car registered to Macias was involved in a police chase Monday in Goshen, about 10 miles away. The car caught fire and its occupant died, but police say they must await results of DNA testing before they can determine whether the driver was Macias.

The attacks have shaken many in Elkhart, a city of 53,000 about 15 miles east of South Bend. The city is best known for being the recreational vehicle manufacturing capital, which saw the county's unemployment rate to spike to 18.9 percent in March 2009.

Amanda Kelley, whose house next door to the Aguilars' has melted siding from the fire, wonders why police aren't saying more.

"I don't understand that at all," she said.

The few details that have emerged so far are chilling.

Police received a report at 1:46 a.m. Monday that a woman had been stabbed multiple times at a mobile home where a child sustained a minor injury. Four minutes later, police received a report of the fire at Aguilar's home 1.5 miles away. Assistant Fire Chief Shaun Edgerton said someone attached a wicking device to a propane tank and threw it into the Aguilars' house, creating a device resembling a blow torch.

Aguilar's wife, Maria, escaped the fire with daughters Jasmine, 10 and Samantha, 8 months, along with two nephews. But fire officials and neighbors said the fire spread through the house so quickly that there was little time to try to rescue those still inside.

"The fire was shooting out the window in waves, like a hose with water, only it was fire," said Erik Salyer, who lives across the street.

At 3:14 a.m., police got a call that another woman had been stabbed several times.

Less than two hours later, police in Goshen, about 10 miles away, reported seeing a "suspect vehicle" fleeing. The vehicle eventually caught fire and the occupant died. Coroner John White ruled the death a suicide but said police asked him not to discuss what led him to that conclusion.

No one is saying why Aguilar, or the two women also stabbed early Monday, might have been targeted.

Aguilar, who worked in the shipping department for a custom metal fabrication company and as a cook at the Hacienda restaurant, had moved with his wife to the United States from the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes more than 16 years ago. The two sons played for travel soccer teams.

Neighbors and bosses describe Aguilar as a happy, hard-working family man who loved baseball, soccer and dancing.

"He'd do anything you needed him to do. He was never late. He never missed a day of work," said Jackie Nerr, a manager at the Hacienda restaurant where Aguilar worked as a cook.

Mayor Dick Moore said Thursday that police are being tight-lipped until the investigation is complete because they are concerned that they could hurt their case if they put out information prematurely.

But some residents question the prevailing theory that the same person was involved in all of the attacks.

"You wonder if it was really the guy in that car," said Kern, the neighbor. "I hope that was the guy that done it so he won't hurt nobody else."

Kelley said she wonders how someone could have stabbed a woman, driven 1.5 miles to the second house and thrown the propane tank through the window in four minutes.

"I think there's more than one person involved," she said.

The mayor, though, said he's confident no one else was involved, saying no one has called his office or approached him about safety concerns.

"I think people understand that this was probably one man who went crazy for some reason or another and caused all of these things to happen," he said. "The average citizen should have no fear. There's no danger to them."

Anjelica Chavarria, a spokesman for the Aguilar family, said the family is focusing on the loss of their loved ones, not the investigation.

"We're not talking about anything. We're just going through the mourning stages," she said.