A 70-year-old Southern California man has been charged with three felonies in Minnesota -- including second-degree manslaughter -- after he put a hot cookstove in the back of his van, causing a fire that spread to another vehicle, killing a 6-year-old girl and critically injuring her sister, authorities say.
Investigators say Roberto Hipolito, of Long Beach, Calif., and his wife slept overnight in their van outside a Walmart in Fridley, Minn., a northern suburb of Minneapolis. Surveillance video shows Hipolito cooking something on the stove, then putting it in the van before going into the store.
Hipolito's van caught fire and engulfed the two vehicles on either side of it, including a minivan where the two sisters, ages 6 and 9, were waiting for their mother to return from shopping.
According to court documents, Hipolito's wife, who stayed with the van, was told by a passerby that the vehicle was on fire. The woman jumped out and tried to remove belongings, but the fire grew stronger "within thirty seconds of the rear door being opened," the document said.
Six-year-old Ty'rah White died Tuesday night while being treated at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Anoka County Sheriff's Lt. Daniel Douglas told the Star Tribune. Her 9-year-old sister, Taraji White, remained in critical condition at the same hospital on Wednesday evening, a hospital spokeswoman said.
The girls' mother, 33-year-old Essie McKenzie of Coon Rapids, Minn., said Ty'rah was "such a bright kid" with "a huge personality," and said her daughter "loved people."
When asked about the stove, Hipolito said he had not used it for several days, the complaint said. He later clarified that he had used the stove the previous night. When investigators interviewed him again, and Hipolito said he had used the stove that morning to cook and then placed it in the rear of his van. Before moving to a parking spot closer to the store's front door, Hipolito said he had tossed pillows and blankets to the rear of the van where the stove was.
Walmart is well known for allowing overnight RV parking at some locations, and the company's corporate website says it does so "as we are able," with permission coming from individual store managers. A frequently asked questions section on the company's website didn't cover other vehicles. A manager of the Fridley Walmart referred questions to a corporate media relations number, and messages weren't immediately returned.
Hipolito has been charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of negligently causing a fire. Hipolito is scheduled to appear in court Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.