Police say deaths in Modesto fire are 'suspicious'

08/08/2013 6:55 AM

08/08/2013 10:41 PM

Firefighters battling a blaze in north Modesto early Thursday morning found two people dead inside the home.

After initially saying that early indicators determined there was no foul play, Modesto police Sgt. Ivan Valencia said Thursday afternoon they have located evidence "indicating the deaths may not have been accidental." He would not say what that evidence was. By evening, police had termed the deaths "suspicious."

They did not release the identities of the victims, but other sources confirmed they are husband and wife David and Janet Pettit, both 59.

Crews from the Modesto Regional Fire Authority responded to the 4000 block of Divan Court for a house on fire at 3:09 a.m. Thursday, Battalion Chief Hugo Patino said.

Multiple neighbors called 911 to report flames and possibly the sound of screams coming from the home, which is a few blocks northwest of Snyder Avenue and Carver Road.

Neighbor Emy Thach said she came home about 3 a.m. and heard the alarms blaring. A woman drove up around the same time and said she saw the smoke and was trying to figure out where it was coming from. Firefighters arrived shortly after that, Thach said.

When they arrived, a haze of smoke could be seen in the court and fire burning from a second-story window. Fire crews made their way into the home and found the fire in an upstairs bedroom. They also found the couple, as well as two dogs, dead.

David Pettit, who went by his middle name, Scott, owned Riverbank Black Belt Academy on Santa Fe Street for nearly 10 years. The school also went by the name Karate for Kids tae kwon do. The business was closed Thursday and classes canceled. Some of his teachers and students were at the scene of the fire Thursday, waiting by police tape to get answers.

"He was a force," said friend Stephen Wofford. "He was involved in pretty much every community activity in (Riverbank) through his karate school."

Wofford said Scott Pettit was the best man in his wedding earlier this year. He said Janet Pettit worked as a registered nurse at Doctors Medical Center.

Scott Pettit was Riverbank's citizen of the year in 2007, the same year he started the city's first Relay for Life. He held numerous free child safety classes throughout the years. He helped run Health and Safety Night at the Riverbank farmers market and hosted one of the National Night Out locations.

Riverbank City Manager Jill Anderson said, "He really was a very large figure in the community. City staff was very shocked and deeply saddened by the news. Scott loved Riverbank and he was willing to sacrifice for the good of the community."

Anderson said that most recently, Scott donated $1,000 for a community event called Wednesday Night Out.

The Pettits' neighbors reported a third person living in the home, but Valencia said that person, the couple's adult son, recently moved out. Along with their son, the couple have an adult daughter.

There was an initial report of a Molotov cocktail being thrown at the house, but no evidence was found supporting the report, Patino said.

Fire investigators and Modesto Police Department detectives are conducting a joint investigation. The Stanislaus County coroner's office will continue the investigation and attempt to determine a cause of death.

The quiet court remained cordoned off with police tape well into Thursday evening. About 7 p.m., homicide detectives were waiting for a judge to sign a search warrant for the house.

Police ask anyone who may have information regarding criminal activity to please call Crime Stoppers at (209) 521-4636. Callers to Crime Stoppers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward. Tipsters also can text information to Crime Stoppers by sending a text message to 274637. Just type "TIP704" along with the message.

Bee Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra contributed to this report.

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