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More Than One Year Later, Fire Victim Remains Unidentified

More Than One Year Later, Fire Victim Remains Unidentified

Wilmer De Leon, 31, a former recycling center employee, looks at the site near the 210 and 118 freeways where a homeless man he believes he was acquainted with died in the Marek fire. [Los Angeles Time]

Los Angeles Times via YellowBrix

March 15, 2010

Some LAPD officers who patrolled the district told detectives they should be looking for Miguel “Wizard” Ambriz, 48, a well-known transient who wore Army surplus clothing.

But after some checking, the detectives learned that Ambriz had been taken into custody a week before the fire broke out. Ambriz said he was intoxicated and had wandered into an apartment complex where the manager had previously warned him about trespassing. Martinez confirmed that Ambriz was in jail when the fire swept through.

“Everybody was looking for me,” Ambriz said later, sitting at a bus bench dressed in his fatigues, camouflage poncho, jungle hat and black boots. “People thought it was me. Friends were looking for me at hospitals. It felt strange.”

After detectives located Ambriz, they moved on to a new lead: a white homeless man between the ages of 45 and 50 who owned a white dog.

Martinez and Byers tracked down the man’s name, along with a photograph of him. The detectives showed the photo to a liquor store owner who had earlier told them of a transient who never returned to the area after the blaze. The merchant confirmed that the photo was of the person he was talking about.

But just when the detectives thought they had found their man, the owner called Martinez to say that the transient from the photo had returned, alive and well.

He found him sleeping outside the store.

That’s when the detectives shook their heads. They were stuck.

Seemingly back at square one, the detectives returned to Foothill Boulevard. They began hearing more about an Asian man who had not been seen since the fire. Martinez said he initially was skeptical, because relatively few Asians lived in the area. But the description kept coming up.

Some described a short, thin and timid Vietnamese man who was often seen pushing a shopping cart and rummaging through dumpsters for recyclables. Sometimes he had a dog.

“He was very quiet,” recalled Jerry Frias, 44, a warehouse employee.

Danny Madison, 29, an employee at American Eagle Corp., said he regularly noticed the man reading newspapers near a tree. It was there where Marcos Duarte, a parcel deliveryman at the time, spotted him.

“He loved to read,” Duarte said. “I envied him. I’d be rushing to my next route and he’d be there reading his newspaper by the tree.”

Duarte said he spoke to the man two weeks before the fire, but it was difficult to understand him because his English was poor.

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