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Neighbors express anger over homeless man’s death in South L.A.


Every now and then, Maria Reyes would hop on a bus in West L.A. and take a nearly two-hour ride to South Los Angeles to visit her best friend.

About four months ago, her friend started living inside a blue Ford SUV that he parked on East 102nd Street, just off Avalon Boulevard. There, the two would pass the day talking and laughing.

At home, Reyes worried about him. He used a wheelchair to get around and after contracting COVID twice — falling into a coma each time — he needed a heart transplant.

But she found comfort in knowing a network of family and friends would check on him. And neighbors, many of them Latinos, had grown fond of him because of his joyful, kind and respectful personality. Some of them, they said, would call him tio — uncle.

So it was a gross shock to everyone on East 102nd Street to learn that someone had set fire to his SUV as he slept inside on Sunday. Authorities said the man suffered third-degree burns and died a few hours later at a local hospital.

Brian Humphrey, spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said the fire was reported at 1:39 a.m. Sunday. Firefighters arriving at the scene came across a vehicle engulfed in flames.

Video footage of the fire showed firefighters dousing the flames and the body of a person at the entrance of a parking lot of a small shopping plaza.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives believe someone deliberately set the vehicle on fire and are searching for the person or persons involved.

Coroner’s officials have not identified the victim, but Reyes and others who knew the man said his name was Clay Buchanan. He was two weeks from celebrating his 50th birthday.

In a phone interview Monday, Reyes sobbed as she spoke about her longtime friend.

“He didn’t deserve to die like that,” she said. “He was a good-hearted man.”

She said Buchanan had just returned from Riverside County, where he had been staying with a niece. She said he wanted to be closer to friends and family and that he had purchased the SUV while waiting to get housing.

“He tried to do things on his own,” Reyes. “He didn’t like to be a burden to people.”

Earlier that Monday, residents dropped off flowers and lit candles by a pole sign located feet from the space where Buchanan had parked. The ground where the vehicle was had been blackened by the fire, and scorched items laid scattered.

Taped to the pole was a printout of a photo of Buchanan with a short message that read:

“My brother, we love you and we will always miss you, but we will never forget you. Say hi and give your momma a big hug from us. Love so much brother.”

Reading the message was Miguel Carrillo, 45, a resident of the neighborhood. Carillo had stopped by the memorial to light a candle after shopping at a supermarket across the street.

“He was such a nice person,” he said. “He would always greet me in Spanish and ask how I was doing.”

Carillo said he never got to know the man’s name but pointed to some candles that had “Clay” written on them. He said the man was heavyset and couldn’t move around much. He said many people in the neighborhood had grown fond of him and would sometimes give him food and water.

Helen Toribio, 38, another neighbor who stopped by the memorial, said the man had only moved into the neighborhood some four months ago. She said she would always see him in his SUV or sometimes in a wheelchair.

Toribio said she was at home sleeping when a neighbor called her and told her a nearby vehicle had caught fire. Toribio ran out to check on her car and saw Buchanan’s SUV in flames.

“I saw firefighters pulling him out of the vehicle,” she said. “I thought perhaps he was OK, but we were driving by and saw the memorial and learned he had died. It’s so sad.”

Nearby, Pancho Mercado, 55, a homeless man, slowly crossed the street to the memorial site and began sobbing.

“They burned him,” he said. “He was like family to us. He would always give us something to eat and drink.”

Mercado used his shirt to wipe tears from his face.

“This really hurt me,” he said, pounding his chest. ”He would tell us in Spanish, ‘I love you guys.’”

Several neighbors and Reyes said a few days before his car was torched, someone had broken his windows after an argument. They wonder now if that same person had anything to do with Buchanan’s death.

In another phone interview, Maria Reyes’ sister, Monica, 31, said she feels devastated by his death and angry over the manner in which he died.

“That was his safe spot because everybody knew him there,” she said.

Monica Reyes said Buchanan had trouble walking after contracting COVID in 2021. She said he was a man who viewed life with joy despite the hardships he faced, including not having a home of his own and losing his mother 20 years ago. When he was 16, she said, he had survived being shot 10 times.

“This man was like a brother to me,” she said. “I’m happy I got to meet Clay for the amount of time that I did.”

Both sisters described Buchanan as a smart, generous man and a big jokester.

Maria Reyes said the last time she saw him was two weeks ago. She also got a phone call from him on Friday, not long before his vehicle would be set on fire. She said they told each other they loved one another.

“We’re going to miss the heck out of him,” she said.



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