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Little Village building where 10 kids died was site of suspicious fire in 2017

Ten children died from injuries in a fire last month in this Little Village building. | Sun-Times

Ten children died from injuries in a fire last month in this Little Village building. | Chicago Fire Media Affairs

The Chicago Fire Department last year recommended that police investigate a fire in the same Little Village apartment building where a blaze killed 10 children this year, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

A sofa caught fire on Feb. 22, 2017 in the living room of a vacant first-floor apartment at the rear of the building at 2224 S. Sacramento, the records show. No one was injured.

Ten children died last month after fire raced through a second-floor apartment at the rear of the same building. Their ages ranged from three months old to 16 years old. No adults were in the apartment during the fire.

Fire officials are continuing to investigate the cause of that blaze.

On Thursday, a source close to the investigation said the fatal fire on Aug. 26 probably started around 3 a.m. — about 45 minutes before a witness called 911 at 3:45 a.m. to report flames shooting through the windows of the second-floor rear unit.

That could indicate the fire was the result of something that was smoldering in the apartment that morning, the source said. No officials have suggested the tragedy was arson.

Fire officials initially said they didn’t find any smoke detectors in the second-floor rear unit, but they later said they did find a smoke detector without batteries.

A Chicago police officer helps as Omar Acevedo pounds a cross bearing the names of victims into the dirt outside the Little Village building where a fire killed 10 children last month. | Getty Images

Last year’s fire was investigated by the Chicago Fire Department’s Office of Fire Investigations, which recommended that the Chicago Police arson unit “conduct a criminal investigation in any manner they deem pertinent or necessary,” according to a report obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. A detective visited the scene that night after fire officials called the police department, records show.

Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the police department, said detectives investigated last year’s fire. He said no one was arrested.

The 6:45 p.m. fire last year “was the result of an open flame to a sofa left in the middle of the room,” the OFI report said. No smoke detectors were present, the report added. Firefighters extinguished the blaze, which was confined to the living room.

Merced Gutierrez, the owner of the building, told fire investigators that he rented the unit to a woman who lived there with her kids for about six months. Gutierrez said he was in the process of evicting her for failing to pay rent and the apartment had been vacant for at least eight days.

Gutierrez told investigators that he visited the vacant apartment at 1:30 p.m. that day and locked it. He said the tenants never returned their keys and he didn’t change the locks. He told investigators he’s owned the building since 1979.

In their report, fire investigators noted there were “obvious signs of the hastened departure of the former tenants.”

The OFI report didn’t name the tenants. Gutierrez and his attorney could not be reached for comment. A man who speaks for the families of the children didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Family and friends of the fire victims stand outside Our Lady Of Tepeyac church after a funeral on Sept. 1. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Last week, a judge ordered Gutierrez to keep the building unoccupied after the city found numerous building code violations there. The next court hearing for the code violations is in December.

Court records show Gutierrez was in the process of evicting Yolanda Ayala this year from the second-floor unit in the rear where the fatal fire occurred. Five of Ayala’s children died. They were attending a sleepover with cousins and friends.

The state Department of Children and Family Services is investigating allegations of neglect in connection with the fire.

Since 2004, Ayala was the subject of 21 prior DCFS investigations, one of which resulted in her family receiving “community-based services,” the agency revealed last month. She lost five children in the fire ranging from three months old to 14 years old.

Sonya Carrillo, the mother of a 16-year-old boy who died, was the subject of two investigations in which DCFS found she inadequately supervised her kids, the agency said.

Contributing: Carlos Ballesteros and Mitch Dudek