October 31, 2006

Fireworks fallout

Crime: Explosion left homes damaged and neighborhood changed.
By Karen Robes, Staff writer
Article Launched:10/28/2006 10:52:05 PM PDT

LAKEWOOD - Yvetth Parada Santos' 9-year-old son avoids the view from his window.

From the top of his bunk bed, he can see a crumbled, blackened structure and a singed flower bush near the front of the house next door.

"He doesn't like to look out that window, so the blinds on that window don't get open very much," his mother said. "I think it just brings back bad memories."

Seven months after Brian Miller's illegal fireworks stash destroyed the home he rented and damaged several nearby houses March 5, residents in the quiet Dunrobin Avenue neighborhood say they still feel the effects of the explosion.

"If I'm walking someplace and somebody's slammed on their breaks, I jump," said Jerry Hildebrant,who lives two doors down from Miller's former house.

Miller, who was sentenced in August to five years in prison, will appear at a hearing Monday to determine how much he will pay in damages to his neighbors. At the sentencing hearing, his attorney said Miller plans to pay full restitution.

The blast did more than jostle the neighborhood - the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department altered the way it polices and profiles fireworks offenders.

It also spurred a citywide debate that led officials to place a measure on the Nov. 7 ballot that would ban all fireworks from Lakewood.

For many who live on Dunrobin, resentment and frustration also linger with the debris that still litters the fireworks-scorched home. Crews last week began rebuilding the house, which has been fenced off since the blast.

Shirley Knull, who has lived here since 1971, remembered when the neighborhood consisted mainly of original homeowners.

"Up until the last few years, it was really, really great," she said. "I mean, I'm not going to knock it now, but people lived here forever. It was so cool. Neighbors would turn the lights on, feed the dog, and take care of our house as if it were their own."

When Miller moved into the neighborhood four years ago, fireworks went off almost nightly, neighbors said.

"It was like bombs going off, like a canon," Knull said. "We were having fireworks problems and it was just going on and on all the time. We were calling the police."

Moving out

Residents said they complained to the Sheriff's Department and to City Hall about Miller for years but felt their calls were not taken seriously.

A Sheriff's official has said deputies answered numerous calls to the house, questioned Miller, staked out the house and dug through his trash for evidence. Miller could not be arrested despite their efforts.

Judy O'Neil recalled her neighbors' ire after the explosion.

"There was a lot of anger, because it was uncalled for," O'Neil said. "It was a relief knowing that we didn't have to contend with all that now."

One month after the blast, she and her husband moved out of their Lakewood home of 11 years. They moved to Missouri to be closer to family, but problems in the neighborhood made their decision to leave easier.

"It was in the back of our minds," she said. "We lost weight and the whole bit, 20 pounds for each of us. The stress, oh boy, I think (moving) was one of the biggest things we did in our entire life."

Blanket on fire

After the blast made their house unlivable for five months, the Santos family moved back home in mid-August. Santos estimated the damage to be more than $50,000.

The first few nights after they returned, her sons were afraid to sleep in their beds.

When they last slept there, illegal fireworks flew into their bedroom. One son was covered in glass; another's blanket was on fire.

"They literally slept on the floor with their blankets watching TV because they didn't want to go to sleep in their beds," Santos said.

With new bunk beds and carpeting, the bedroom shows no signs of an explosion. But other parts of the house are in various stages of repair. Cracks stretch across the kitchen wall and some of the windows need to be replaced.

"It's a work in progress," she said. "We're just waiting. There's still mess. The inside is mostly complete. It's the outside that we need to focus on."

`A bad year'

Next door to Santos, Hildebrant stood in the room that once served as a bedroom for him and his wife.

They no longer sleep here, he said. The room serves as the pets' room, its broken windows covered with the sports pages of the Press-Telegram.

On the morning of the explosion, fireworks shot through their bedroom windows and glass shattered onto their bed and floor. A door was blown off its hinges.

"I knew what it was," he said. "I rolled out of bed, my wife grabs the dog and ran in the closet. My wife was frightened, and I didn't think it was bad at first so I walked down to give him a piece of my mind, 'cause Sunday morning, that's enough of that stuff.

"When I started walking over there, there was more explosions. I met him at the front of his door and I says, `Are you satisfied now, Brian?"'

The couple were not harmed, but their 10-year-old mixed chow, Ginger, died soon after from a heart attack.

"That's the hard part," Hildebrant said.

In addition to $10,000 in repairs to their home, the Hildebrants will seek restitution for $4,000 in veterinary bills.

"Been a bad year for us," he said. "I've been out of work for awhile. Been bad."

Karen Robes can be reached at karen.robes@presstelegram.com or (562) 499-1303.

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