Son of slain Modesto couple was at center of speculation by friends, neighbors

etracy@modbee.comAugust 17, 2013 

Modesto Regional fire fighters and city of Modesto police gather outside of a home on the 4,000 block of Divan Ct. in north Modesto where two people fell victim to a fire confined to the top floor of the home early Thursday morning (08-08-13).

ELIAS FUNEZ — The Modesto Bee Buy Photo

— The son of the Modesto couple whose bodies were found in their burning home is one of two men arrested in the case, the Modesto Police Department announced late Saturday night.

Brandon Pettit, 25, and Felix Valverde, 26, were arrested on suspicion of murder, arson and conspiracy in the deaths of David Scott Pettit and Janet Pettit, according to Sgt. Ivan Valencia.

Speculation about Brandon Pettit's involvement in his parents' deaths has been shared among friends and neighbors over the past week and a half, but police remained silent about potential suspects.

After conflicting statements about whether Brandon Pettit was living with his parents at the time of their murder, Valencia said Friday that he did live there but was at work when they were killed.

Valenica would not say what role detectives believe Brandon Pettit had in his parents' deaths or what evidence led to his and Valverde's arrest. "There is information of both conspiring to commit the crime and evidence linking them to it," he said. "What their roles were and what evidence has been obtained is not being released."

Valencia also said, "the involvement of other people has not been ruled out."

He said Valverde and Brandon Pettit were friends but did not elaborate.

The bodies of Scott and Janet Pettit, both 59, were found by firefighters battling a blaze in the bedroom of their north Modesto home in the early morning hours of Aug. 8. Police announced the next day that their deaths were homicides.

Police later said friends and family members had been interviewed and were cooperating with the investigation. The Pettits also have a 28-year-old daughter, who could not be reached for comment Sunday.

On Friday, investigators said they believed more than one suspect was involved and believed the fire at the Divan Court home was set to cover up the homicide. They also confirmed that the victims were dead prior to the residence catching fire.

Details not shared

Valencia would not say how the couple died or how long before the fire was started they were believed to have died.

One neighbor reported hearing what she described as dogs "screaming" as if they were being hurt about 11 p.m., hours before the fire. Other neighbors heard nothing out of the ordinary until about 3 a.m., when the fire caused the windows of the Pettits' bedroom to shatter.

Another neighbor named Mike, who asked to be referred to only by his first name, said, "The very first thing I heard was banging. I thought it was gunshots, but it didn't sound loud enough."

Half asleep and unsure of what he heard, Mike continued to listen but didn't get out of bed until about 10 minutes later, when the fire alarm started blaring and red flashes from what he could only assume were flames lit up his room.

A close friend and colleague of Janet Pettit, said Brandon Pettit has Asperger's syndrome and had trouble keeping a job. He moved out of his parents' home a few times but always seemed to come back, the friend said.

While the Pettits continually let Brandon back in their home when he had nowhere else to go, the friend said, they would keep money and possessions under lock and key because he had stolen from them at least twice in the past.

The neighbor who heard the strange animal noises the night before the fire, who asked not to be identified, said she saw Brandon Pettit the day after his parents' deaths. He was no longer driving his old car, but Janet Pettit's new BMW, which she had never seen him drive before.

Valencia declined to comment on a motive for the killings and wouldn't say whether anything was missing from the home.

Janet Pettit was a neonatal nurse practitioner and clinical nurse at Doctors Medical Center. She also worked as assistant nurse manager in maternal and child health at Kaiser Modesto Medical Center.

Scott Pettit taught martial arts to hundreds of children and adults. He owned Riverbank Black Belt Academy on Santa Fe Street for nearly 10 years and previously had other locations throughout the county. He was Riverbank's citizen of the year in 2007.

Previous cases in county

There have been at least three other cases of children suspected of killing their parents in Stanislaus County in the past five years.

Most recently, on Mother's Day 2011, sheriff's deputies arrested Shanna Wills, then 17, in connection with the stabbing death of her father and assault on her mother in their Denair home. She is accused of beating her parents with a variety of household objects before stabbing them both with a decorative knife.

Wills has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to charges of murder and attempted murder. Two doctors have been appointed by the court to examine her and submit a report about her mental health.

Cameron Terhune, then 25, pleaded guilty in April 2010 to shooting and beating his parents, Ken and Diane Terhune, in their Del Rio home more than a year earlier.

He was sentenced to 100 years to life in prison for their deaths.

In a 2009 jailhouse interview with The Bee, Terhune said he struggled with mental health problems.

That same year, Jesse Allen Frost, then 39, of Riverbank pleaded guilty to fatally stabbing his mother, Donna Norton; sister, Judy Niemi; and brother-in-law, Anthony Niemi.

Frost was a former high school and college wrestling star who fell on hard times in the years leading up to the February 2009 attack at his Arcaro Drive home.

Brandon Pettit and Valverde are being held without bail at the Stanislaus County Jail. Both are scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.

Police ask anyone with information regarding the Pettit homicide to call Crime Stoppers at (209) 521-4636. Callers to Crime Stoppers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward.

Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at etracy@modbee.com or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter @ModestoBeeCrime.

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