A California doctor has spoken out after losing her eight-month-old puppy in a Venice Beach house fire that is now being investigated as arson amid a growing homeless crisis plaguing the area.
Dr. Courtney Gillenwater, a pediatrician and US Navy veteran, was not at her one-story bungalow last Wednesday, when it suddenly went up in flames, trapping and killing her Husky-mix, Togo.
Frantic neighbors desperately tried to rescue the helpless pup who was heard barking loudly as the blaze tore through the home just before 4am.
It took 26 firefighters to finally extinguish the flames, but sadly Togo could not be saved.
One week on, the cause of the fire is still unknown and remains under investigation by the The LA Fire Department’s Arson Division and the LAPD’s Major Crimes Division.
Residents, however, are now pointing to a nearby homeless encampment in the now ‘lawless’ beachside community.
Dr. Courtney Gillenwater lost her eight-month-old Husky-mix, Togo (pictured) after her Venice bungalow went up in flames last Wednesday
The Los Angeles Fire Department’s Arson Division and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes Division are now investigating the cause of the deadly fire which broke out just before 4am and required 26 firefighters to put out its raging flames
Neighbors suspect the blaze could have been a retaliatory attack by drug addicts who had grown angry over the dog’s barking.
‘Words cannot describe what it’s like to lose your dog in a fire,’ Dr. Courtney told DailyMail.com in an exclusive interview. ‘Someone wanted to hurt my dog. And they did.’
Just a few days before the fire, Dr. Courtney recalled, there were drugs ‘being exchanged out of an illegal dumpster’ that had been placed behind her home in the back alley where Togo’s room faced.
‘There were windows back there and Togo would always bark at the creepy people who would be unlocking the illegal dumpster at weird hours of the night around 2.00-3.00am, and this is where the fire started from.’
Dr. Courtney, a Goodwill Ambassador who has traveled the world helping those in disaster areas, is convinced that these same ‘peeping Toms creeping around her house’ didn’t like the fact that her dog’s barking was somewhat of an alarm going off alerting neighbors of the drug deals happening right outside their homes.
‘We complained about the dumpster and after a long ten days it was finally removed just days before the fire,’ a good friend who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons told DailyMail.com.
‘These drug addicts would sit by Dr. Courtney’s back window and harass her. One guy even stood on the dumpster so he could get a better look into her window.’
While the cause of the fire remains unclear, neighbors have pointed to members of the growing homeless encampment nearby who they believe had grown angry over the dog’s barking
Days before the fire, Dr. Courtney recalled how there were drugs ‘being exchanged out of an illegal dumpster’ behind her home in the back alley where Togo’s room faced
The doctor however, emphasized that the local homeless vets in the area have always been very kind to her and her dog, and are now helping her find the culprits responsible.
It’s the vagrants from other states that are on drugs and the mentally ill, neighbors claim, that pose the greatest threat, not just to the residents but to the local homeless as well.
‘Venice Beach is lawless and homeless people know it,’ longtime resident Carl Lieberman told DailyMail.com.
‘That’s why they come here. They are given tents and a spot near or on the beach to call home. The weather is warm, who wouldn’t want to come here?’
Lieberman described how his son tried to save the young pup by attempting to smash open the door and windows, but couldn’t get to the dog because of the scorching flames.
‘There were clouds of dark smoke which made it really hard to see. We heard barking and whimpering, until no more sounds could be heard. It’s absolutely devastating,’ Lieberman said.
Lieberman, who along with many others, blames Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin for not doing anything to help protect the locals from the disastrous homeless crisis.
The doctor was not home at the time the fire tore to her home and trapped and killed her beloved dog
It took 26 firefighters to finally extinguish the flames, but Togo, unfortunately, could not be saved
‘Venice has become like the Wild West. It’s a life or death situation everyday with police guarding the ritzy Abbot Kinney shopping streets up the block, while ignoring the hard working residents who live here with their families and pets.’
‘You just can’t get that sound out of your head, you know. We just wish we could have done anything to help that poor baby,’ a neighbor who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons told DailyMail.com.
‘There were people in the alley before this happened. I just happened to be awake because I was hearing sounds about 3.30 in the morning and then it escalated quickly and then you could hear the dog and we ran out and the neighbor came out and tried to rescue the dog.’
‘It happened to such an amazing person and a great dog. I feel terrible for them,’ the neighbor said.
‘Thank God Courtney wasn’t home. She’s a frontline worker, a Navy vet, and has worked all over the world. She works for the city and that dog was a snow dog and had joined her on missions to bring medicine to people. It’s sad that this poor baby had to go this way.’
‘These homeless encampments are a breeding ground for drugs, violence and crime,’ said another neighbor, who described the area ‘like a scene out of The Walking Dead with meth addicts walking around like zombies and the mentally ill screaming to themselves.’
Dr. Courtney, a Goodwill Ambassador who has traveled the world helping those in disaster areas, suspects the drug addicts didn’t like the fact that her dog’s barking was somewhat of an alarm going off alerting neighbors of the drug deals
Dr. Courtney’s running club Midnight Runners LA have launched a GoFundMe page to help the doctor after losing her home and beloved pet
To make matters worse the encampment next to the home that burned is directly across the street from an elementary school.
Francesca Padilla said the fire could have easily spread to her home and the surrounding neighbors had the winds been stronger.
The mother of two young children said they are traumatized after being rushed out of the house at 3am knowing their neighbor’s dog was trapped in the burning house.’
‘People are not doing their jobs, anyone can see the correlation between homeless encampments and the rise of fires. We have people cooking drugs out in the open right across the street. Is that not a recipe for disaster? First there was a fire on the boardwalk that’s two blocks from us,’ Padilla told DailyMail.com.
‘I work from home and I have seen grown men urinating in front of the school, people half-naked passed out across the street from the school. I have video of a guy losing his mind and throwing furniture in front of the kids, and nobody can do anything about it.’
Even the police are frustrated because they are not allowed to interfere with the homeless because of Covid-19, which neighbors agree is an excuse.
‘Every single cop I have spoken to has been told they can’t do anything, that their hands are tied and it’s up to higher city officials,’ Padilla explained.
Padilla said she wrote a letter to Mike Bonin a week before the horrific fire warning him of the impending doom. No one replied to her concerns.
‘The homeless crisis and encampments have quadrupled since Covid-19,’ said Padilla.
‘I am in constant shock of what I see in front of the school. I want them to take away this encampment and make the safety of the kids a priority.
‘The homeless problem is not merely about putting people in homes. There are many layers that need to be dealt with, those being mental health and addiction.’
Meanwhile, investigators continue to search for evidence and video footage relating to the fire that took Dr. Courtney’s beloved dog whom she rescued from an animal shelter a year ago.
The Operation Smile volunteer said she and Togo had recently competed in an international Reebok race together.
Togo helped her win the competition making her the first female to run 200 miles in less than two weeks with her team Midnight Runners LA.
‘Yes Togo was running by my side. He was a good dog. A sweet dog.’
Dr. Courtney’s running club Midnight Runners LA started a GoFundMe page for their friend.