Identity of Man Burned in Truck Eludes Officials

The absence of a positive identification continues to hold up investigators who are trying to figure out exactly why a man first drove his truck into a local woman’s vehicle and then set the truck on fire with himself inside in an apparent suicide last week.
The woman, who lives in the 1600 block of Shenandoah Road, escaped serious injury despite the man striking her SUV at the driver’s side door. She managed to identify him as her former gardener before racing off to report the crash, which happened just as she pulled out of her driveway, at San Marino Police Department at 8:39 a.m. Monday, March 26.
Just before she arrived, San Marino Fire Department took a call regarding a truck that was on fire on Shenandoah Road.
“They saw thick black smoke when they left the station, and when they arrived, the truck was fully engulfed,” said SMFD firefighter Jason Sutliff, who is one of the arson investigators for this case. “I would say this is definitely a first for some of our guys.”
Witnesses say the man, who simply left his truck parked where he’d collided with the victim, poured some sort of liquid all over his truck and then himself, got back inside the cab and ignited himself.
“We’re always looking for people who observed what happened,” Sgt. Tim Tebbetts with SMPD said. “We have spoken to several people who claim to have seen what happened. Just the ‘why’ he did it is missing.”
Although the victim says the man was her former gardener, whom she fired about two months ago, investigators still need a forensic identification to move forward, especially given the extent of the man’s disfigurement as a result of his burns. The county coroner is leading the identification effort, while police and deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have followed up on addresses linked to the woman’s former gardener in the meantime.
“We’ve been to those two addresses and it’s unconfirmed whether he actually lived there or not,” Tebbetts said. “We have reached out to a few other homeowners who used the suspect for his service, and they were basically just able to confirm that this person does their yard and this person did not show up recently.”
The bulk of the arson investigation is pretty wrapped up at this point, although Sutliff admitted a continuing curiosity about the police investigation.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze quickly after they arrived and discovered the body in the truck’s cab.
“At the time, they weren’t quite sure,” Sutliff said. “Of course, once it was extinguished, it was discovered very quickly afterward. Once they acknowledged someone was inside the vehicle, they secured the scene and stayed there for several hours.”
Sutliff discovered a Bic lighter in the front driver’s side floorboard, and also a box of stick matches behind the driver’s seat. However, it was unclear specifically how the man lit the fuel. It also remains unclear what that fuel was.
“There’s the assumed answer and there’s the technical answer,” Sutliff explained. “The assumed answer is that it was gasoline.”
Arson investigators typically rely on a device called a combustible gas monitor (Sutliff said “sniffer” is a common industry term), which detects whether the fumes of an extinguished fire indicate that type of fuel. Beyond that, however, it doesn’t get more specific.
“That’s basically the extent of what we look for in an investigation,” Sutliff said. “If it’s an ignitable liquid or combustible gas, it makes a specific sound.”
Sutliff noted there were two red gasoline containers recovered at the scene, that gasoline was widely available and cheap and that a truck would burn in this manner if gasoline had indeed been poured all over it. If the man was a gardener, it’s also somewhat likely he normally has gasoline to power yard equipment.
Bomb squad devices also were used to assess two unidentified packages nearby, which ultimately proved to be innocuous.

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