Jose Fernando Santillanes, a 36-year-old Latino man, was tinkering with an electric vault in an empty South Gate lot on Saturday afternoon. His wife, 33-year-old Maria Cortez, stood by. Their two kids — ages 3 and 9 — sat just 15 feet away, waiting in the family pickup.
That's when the scene flashed horrific:
Santillanes tweaked a live copper wire, triggering an explosion that surged through his body, killing him almost immediately. When his wife tried to pull him from danger, she was subjected to a flash fire that left her severely burned, City News Service reports.
Nearby resident Karla Hernandez told CBS2 that Santillanes' wife was screaming, “My husband! My husband!”
“The children were crying,” she said. “And then we heard two more explosions.''
One mystery remains: What, exactly, was Santillanes was doing inside a locked vault at 3064 Firestone Boulevard? Police maintain that this is a case of attempted copper theft — a crime that has become a lot more common in the economic downturn, says South Gate Police Lieutenant Keith Hupp.
According to KTLA, however, Francisco Santillanes — the victim's brother — attests that Santillanes and Cortez were hired to “pull weeds and pick up trash in the area.”
“He's an honest person, he was working to maintain his family in one piece and now we lost my brother and it's possible we're gonna loose my sister in law,” Santillanes told KTLA.
South Gate Police Lieutenant Francis Arocha said that evidence exists to the contrary — but he is currently unwilling to release it.
“We definitely don't want to trample on anyone's grave, but there's reason to suspect he was involved in copper theft,” is all Arocha would say.
Cortez is currently in critical condition at Grossman Burn Center. Her and Santillanes' children are in protective custody.
Coincidentally, 12 police officers working for the Los Angeles Unified School District were just commended last Tuesday for breaking up a copper-theft ring terrorizing schools in the San Fernando Valley. And a couple weeks ago, two men were caught stealing copper wire from light poles in Claremont.