TURLOCK — Three women trying to kill a man sparked a massive fire at a defunct cheese plant, police said Wednesday.
Police arrested Lanette Sullivan, 46, Wanda White, 45, and Erika Cardy, 24, Wednesday on charges of arson and attempted murder in Tuesday night's fire. All are considered transients, police said.
The three were involved in a dispute with the man; all three had found shelter at the former Lactalis USA building on West Main Street, authorities said.
It's not clear if any of those involved had been staying at the building, but "they were there for the night," said officer Mayra Lewis, spokeswoman for the Turlock Police Department. The plant, like other empty buildings, has attracted homeless people looking to avoid the elements without going to a shelter.
"The victim and one of the females got into a verbal argument," Lewis said. "At some point, it escalated into a physical fight."
In an effort to escape the women, the man climbed into the rafters.
"The female he was engaged in an argument with along with the two other females started the fire, knowing that the victim was in the rafters," Lewis said. Investigators aren't releasing what the women lit on fire but Lewis said it was "items already in the building."
The man, whose name was not released, managed to get away. Fire Chief Tim Lohman said no injuries were reported.
The blaze, reported at 7:19 p.m., consumed much of the interior of the 59,000-square-foot building, as well as its supports, Lohman said.
It took a total of 29 firefighters from Turlock City and agencies from Ceres and Modesto several hours to extinguish the fire, using 900,000 gallons of water in the effort. Crews remained on scene much of Wednesday, checking for hot spots, Lohman said.
A preliminary estimate put damage at $5 million. The plant, which has been closed since 2007, will be torn down. 'That's our plan, to have it demolished," Loh-man said. "That's going to be our next project over the next day or two."
Bail was set at $500,000 for each of the three women.
Although it was by far the biggest fire of the night, the cheese plant blaze was only one of four in Turlock. Crews battled blazes at a house on West Main Street, a home on Hawkeye Avenue and a duplex on Castor Street. Lohman said one of the other fires was electrical and a second accidental; the cause of the fourth was under investigation, but it's not believed related to the plant blaze.
Lactalis operated the plant from the 1980s until its closure in 2007, making brie and other specialty cheeses. Firefighters kept the fire from spreading to the adjacent Evergreen packaging company.
Investigators said they believe there were other people at the plant Tuesday night and want to talk with any potential witnesses. They ask anyone with information on the case to call Detective Frank Navarro at (209) 668-5550, ext. 6619.
Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter, @pattyguerra.