The blaze that raged through a vacant Turlock cheese factory Tuesday night was intentionally set, allegedly by three women trying to drive out a man hiding in the rafters, the Turlock Police Department reported.
The three women, identified as Lanette Sullivan, 46, of Turlock; Wanda White, 45, of Turlock; and Erika Clardy, 24, of Turlock were all charged with attempted murder and felony arson of an inhabited dwelling in connection with Tuesday night’s fire at the former Lactalis USA plant.
The 32-year-old man is the ex-boyfriend of Sullivan and was able to escape the flames without suffering any injuries.
Through the victim’s statements and witness accounts, Turlock Police detectives were able to track down the three women and take them into custody Wednesday.
The man and three women were inside the vacant building at 1400 W. Main Street Tuesday night. The man and Sullivan got into a verbal argument and that escalated into a physical fight, according to the police department.
The victim told investigators he was afraid of what the women might do to him, so he took shelter in the rafters.
“Knowing he was hiding in the rafters, the females all conspired to set the building on fire using items in the building,” said Turlock Police spokesperson Officer Mayra Lewis.
Witnesses told the police several people were seen leaving the building at the time smoke started to waft from the roof.
In a jailhouse interview with CBS 13 News, Sullivan stated the three women, who are all related, had nothing to do with starting the fire and claims it was ignited by a Coleman camp light at the scene.
All three women were in Stanislaus County Superior Court Friday morning for an arraignment. None of them had an attorney, so the judge entered not guilty pleas on their behalf and scheduled a pretrial appearance for them on Thursday. They will be appointed attorneys by the court.
Each of the women also had their bails significantly increased. They previously had been set at $500,000 each, but the judge ordered Clardy and Sullivan’s to $1.8 million each and White’s was raised to $1.81 million. White has several convictions for drug possession, as well as convictions for misdemeanor battery, petty theft and grand theft, according to court records. She also has an open case on a charge of possession of marijuana. Sullivan has two prior convictions for petty theft.
All three women remain in custody at the Stanislaus County Public Safety Facility.
As the first firefighters arrived at the scene smoke was billowing from the rooftop of the 59,000 square foot facility.
Turlock fire fighters made an initial entry into the building and were taking an offensive attack until the flames breached the roof and conditions started to deteriorate, said Turlock Fire Battalion Chief Gary Lunsford.
Firefighters had to clear out of the building and take a defensive attack by pouring water down onto the flames through the use of three ladder trucks.
The roof of the structure eventually collapsed.
As the fire raged flames were seen shooting up into the night sky, some as high as 75 feet. Additional fire equipment and crews were called in from Modesto and Ceres. A total of 29 personnel were on scene for about three hours to bring the fire under control.
Some personnel remained at the scene through the night to extinguish any flare-ups. Firefighters have continued to check for hot spots in the building over the last few days.
An estimated 900,000 gallons of water were used to bring the fire under control, according to the fire department.
The damage from the fire was estimated at $5 million.
The building has been vacant since 2007 when Lactalis USA shuttered their local operations. In the ensuing years it has been a regular target for thieves seeking copper wiring and recyclables. It also is routinely used by transients seeking shelter. Evidence was found in the rubble that at least one person had been staying there for some time, according to the police department.
The investigation into the fire is ongoing and it’s possible more individuals were involved. Police are asking anyone with information on the fire to call Detective Frank Navarro at 668-5550 ext. 6619.