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Two killed in Garfield Ridge fire

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A deadly house fire that appears to be arsonÑand possibly gang relatedÑhas shaken a number of Garfield Ridge residents, as the normally peaceful neighborhood reacted to the second fatal incident in as many weeks.

Two people were killed Saturday morning in the blaze, as a 100-year-old, single-family frame house at 5209 S. Lorel burned quickly. A Chicago Fire Department spokesman said that CFD learned of the fire at 9:41 a.m. and were on the scene within three minutes. They reportedly encountered a home Òburning from front to back,” triggering arson suspicions.

Police sources said they consider the blaze an arson.

Dead are 28-year-old Joseph Vela, who was said to be staying at the residence temporarily, and a 63-year-old man identified by neighbors as Saide Jodie, a postal employee and bachelor. A Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office official said Tuesday that the name of the second victim has not been released, and that the cause of death for both men has not yet been determined.{{more}}

Vela’s body was found in an attic bedroom, and Jodie’s was discovered in a bedroom on the main floor, officials said.

Witnesses told police that there was an argument or some sort of disturbance at or near the home, a short while before the fire broke out.

Police described Vela as a gang member and said the home was considered a Òtrouble spot” in an otherwise calm section of Garfield Ridge.

A day before he died, Vela posted a photo on his Facebook page of a man wearing a maskÑapparently a selfieÑand flashing gang signs. Vela’s social media profile describes him as married and a former student at Daley College.

The house is owned by Zofia Zdanowska, according to online tax records. Attempts to reach Zdanowska have not been successful.

Several others said to be living in the houseÑincluding at least one childÑwere not at home when the fire broke out. In the wake of the fire, several toys were strewn on the front lawn.

Saturday’s incident came on the heels of an Aug. 22 execution-style murder of a Brighton Park gang member in an alley near 52nd and Menard. While some neighbors on Facebook tried to connect the dots between the shooting and Saturday’s fire, police said they see no connection.

Reaction to Saturday’s fire was quick and strong among neighbors, and it ranged from profound sympathy for the victims and their families to anger over the larger issue of a gang presence in a community that historically seen relatively little.

ÒWe’ve been in this house for 30 years,” a Garfield Ridge woman posted on Facebook, Òand I remember how things were when I was little around here. Now there’s gangs, drugs, rude people who blast their stupid music ’til 1 a.m., and a neighbor who has their car parked in their backyardÉthere are so many sh~tty neighborhoods that didn’t used to be that way. Afraid that ours is headed that way.”

The woman, who lives about three blocks away from the deadly house fire, sounded a hopeful note when she added, ÒI’ve always loved it hereÉI can’t imagine someone else living here, it’s our house. But the most important thing we can do as a community is not keep quiet. If you see or hear something that’s not right, call police. I do. Or if I see someone throw garbage on the ground, I pick it up and say something loud enough for them to hear. We try to keep our yards and grass looking nice. Neighborhoods go to sh~t when the neighbors let it. It’s up to us to stop that from happening.”

A retired CAPS facilitator who lives in the area agreed, writing that Òif we as a community don’t commit to the fight [against gangs and other crime], then we will give our neighborhood away. So let’s agree that we won’t let this happen.”

A Chicago Fire Department paramedic wrote, ÒThe house on Lorel has been a notorious problem for a long time, and I even recall a couple of EMS runs there. What many of you don’t know [is that] gangs and drugs are right next door or across the alley or down the block.

ÒI can’t tell you how many times heroin or cocaine are involved or someone was beat up by some gangbangers that drove out here etc.,” the emergency responder added. ÒIt is here already, but many turn a blind eye or as I say, ‘Close the blinds and shut the lights off’ and pretend everything’s OK.”

Others blamed the rise of Internet communications for fueling fears about crime, saying that the immediacy of social media promotes a Òget it first” mentality in which people spread unfounded rumors without checking their facts.

The home that burned is in police beat 814, and CAPS Beat 814 facilitator Holly Petroschuk, a respected local crime fighter who has long urged neighbors to get involved in crime prevention, said she hopes that concern over the fire will spur people to attend the 814 meeting set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10 at Vittum Park, 5010 W. 50th St.

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