A man in his 20s was seen throwing gasoline on the man, chasing him, throwing more on him and running from the scene, said Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz. Scorch marks stained a wall Friday where the man was burned.
The burning horrified even officers who routinely witness violent crimes, Diaz said.
"To murder somebody who's probably suffering from mental illness issues and not bothering anyone -- just a poor wretch on the street -- you've got to be a soulless nitwit to do something like this," he said.
The victim remained unidentified, and coroner's investigators might have to rely on fingerprints, Diaz said. Investigators canvassed the neighborhood Friday looking for evidence, witnesses and information about the victim.
Shopkeepers said the man was a fixture in the dense residential neighborhood at the northern edge of Koreatown, and residents were shocked to hear about his violent death.
Every day, the man drank a Dr Pepper, ate a bag of chips and smoked cigarettes, said Young Kim, who owns a nearby dry cleaner.
The homeless man had been in the area for at least 20 years but never bothered anyone or begged for money, Kim said. People gave him food, clothes and spare change.
"This is a terrible shame. He didn't deserve this. It's so cruel," said Jose Antonio Gonzalez, who owns a vitamin shop near where the man was found.
Gonzalez said some longtime residents called the man Johnny and believed he had fought in the Vietnam War and had a wealthy family somewhere. Gonzalez didn't know whether the stories were true.
"He didn't seem to have mental problems. He understood and spoke well. I don't know why he lived on the street," Kim said.
A witness, Thomas Lopez, told KCAL-TV he saw a teenager walk by the homeless man and pour something on him. Moments later the man was on fire.
"To actually see this guy on fire, it was unbelievable. Who would do such a thing?" Lopez said. "I took my shirt off and started putting him out."
The man, who paramedics thought was about 50 years old, had burns over 90 percent of his body, Fire Department spokeswoman d'Lisa Davies said.
Andy Bales, chief executive of the Union Rescue Mission on downtown's Skid Row, said the incident was "part of a long history of people attacking vulnerable homeless individuals in Los Angeles."
"They think the person is less than human because they happen to be homeless. I don't know how you could do that to another human being," Bales said.
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