LAWRENCE — A 55-year-old woman died and a 79-year-old man suffered severe burns on his arms and back in a suspicious fire that scorched the inside of an apartment at the Rita Hall elderly complex at 490 Hampshire St. yesterday morning.
The fire, now being treated as a criminal investigation, forced the evacuation of more than 100 tenants of the complex — home to mostly elderly and disabled people. They were not allowed back into their apartments until late last night.
The female victim, tentatively identified as Mariana Novas-Batista, lived in the apartment with her husband, who was not home when the fire started at 10:23 a.m.
The burned man was identified as Vitilio Infante. According to witnesses he fled the apartment with his clothes on fire. His address is unknown. He was flown to a Boston hospital.
"This is now a criminal investigation," said Police Chief John Romero. He said the it is being undertaken by investigators from the office of District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, along with local police detectives, fire department arson investigators, representatives of the state Fire Marshal's office and State Police crime scene services.
"We are trying to determine what happened prior to the start of the fire," Romero said.
The state medical examiner removed Nova-Batista's body late yesterday afternoon after the various agencies checked the crime scene, including using an accelerant-sniffing dog, according to Deputy Fire Chief Dan Kennedy. He said investigators had to get a warrant to continue the investigation at the 90-unit apartment complex, which is owned by Peabody Properties of Braintree.
"The two victims are known to each other," Romero said. "We are trying to determine the relationship between the individuals and we are trying to establish what caused the fire."