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Details still scarce in fatal mobile home fire

The investigation of a fatal Mountain View fire is stretching into its third week, and residents in the neighborhood where the blaze occurred are anxious to find out what happened.

The Dec. 2 fire claimed the life of a resident of Santiago Villa mobile home park, but details have been scarce, and even the name of the victim hasn't been released.

"We really don't know what happened to him or why he couldn't get out," said Betty Cook, manager of Santiago Villa, located at 1075 Space Park Way. According to her, residents have been seeking answers, but officials from the Mountain View Fire Department and the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office have released little information.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the site of the fire still remained cordoned off, Cook said.

A man named Leroy Beal lived there, she said, though the coroner's office has not confirmed that is the identity of the man who died. "He was a very quiet person," she said. "He didn't bother anyone."

Kay Ritchey, a six-year resident of the park, said Beal was known as a musician by his friends and neighbors in Santiago Villa. She would see him on his motorcycle while she was out walking her dog and she would wave, she said.

According to Ritchey, the lack of information is frustrating many Santiago Villa residents. "Every time I see someone they say, 'What happened? We haven't heard,'" she said.

It's not unusual for investigations like this to take some time, according to Kris Barbrich, an investigator with the coroner's office.

When a body is severely burned, Barbrich said, it can be quite difficult for the medical examiner to identify it.

If someone dies in a manner that does not damage their face or hands, the coroner's office tends to get a family member to identify the victim, or tracks down a fingerprint match, the investigator said. If fingerprints can't be taken, the victim has no family, or if surviving family members cannot positively identify the remains, the medical examiner must move on to more time-consuming methods of identification.

Those include looking for medical and dental records, and comparing the person's DNA to other known family members to look for similarities.

Finding medical records -- such as X-rays of teeth or of medical implants, like screws in a once-broken leg -- might sound simple, Barbrich said. But the process can take quite a while, as it often involves calling around to all the dentists and doctors in the area and asking if the presumed victim was a patient. Even if this search turns out to be fruitful, some doctors and dentists try to withhold information from investigators, citing patient confidentiality. And even though the law sides with the coroner's office in this area, getting the legal documents together to force a medical practice to hand over records takes even more time.

If X-rays are a bust, investigators like Barbrich then attempt to find a DNA match. But that, too, can be a challenge. If a body has been burned extensively, it may be difficult to get a viable tissue sample. And, he added, DNA comparisons of this sort can take two months to complete.

After all other avenues have been exhausted, Barbrich said, then -- and only then -- will the coroner's office look to "circumstantial" evidence as proof of the person's identity.

In this particular circumstance, neighbors are quite sure that Beal was the person in the mobile home that burned down at the beginning of this month.

They said that if he had been away, his motorcycle would have also been gone, but it was parked next to his unit the night of the fire.

Ritchey said she is also wondering how the fire started. She told the Voice that Beal's neighbor heard a noise, which was described as a small explosion, right before the fire.

Investigators with the Mountain View Fire Department have not released any information on the cause of the fire.

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