FRIDLEY, Minn. — A 6-year-old girl died Tuesday evening, Aug. 6, after being injured in a vehicle fire earlier that day in a Walmart parking lot in Fridley, authorities said Wednesday. They also accused a 70-year-old California man with sparking the fire by placing a hot cook stove in the back of his adjacent van as he camped in the parking lot.
The girl and her 9-year-old sister were caught in the fire while they waited in a van while their mother shopped in the store. The 9-year-old remained in critical condition Wednesday evening at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.
The children’s mother, 33-year-old Essie McKenzie, of Coon Rapids, is cooperating with investigators. A GoFundMe benefit established for the victims identified the 6-year-old girl as Ty’rah White and her old sister as Taraji White.
The van the girls were waiting in caught fire after a blaze ignited in a neighboring van. The Anoka County attorney’s office charged Roberto Lino Hipolito, 70, of Long Beach, Calif., with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of negligent fire.
According to the criminal complaint filed Wednesday, investigators determined that the fire started in the rear of Hipolito’s Dodge Caravan around 7 a.m. Tuesday and may have been caused by a cook stove that was recovered from the vehicle.
When first asked about the stove, Hipolito said he hadn’t used it for several days, but later clarified that he had used it the previous night as he and his wife slept in their van while it was parked in the Walmart parking lot.
However, investigators determined through surveillance video footage that Hipolito placed the stove on the pavement near the rear of his vehicle and used it to cook something Tuesday morning.
Hipolito then placed the stove in the rear of the van without allowing sufficient time for it to cool and drove to a different parking spot, closer to the Walmart’s entrance, according to the criminal complaint.
He then entered the store, and about two minutes later, passers-by told Hipolito’s wife — who was waiting in their van — that the vehicle was on fire. She was able to escape the spreading flames after first trying in vain to remove belongings from the van.
Within a few minutes, neighboring vehicles on each side of the van also caught fire, including the van the two girls were in.
The girls suffered extensive burns and were rushed to HCMC in critical condition. Both neighboring vehicles were destroyed, according to the criminal complaint.
After Hipolito was interviewed again, he acknowledged to investigators that he had used the cook stove Tuesday morning and placed it in the rear of the van. He also admitted that he had thrown pillows and blankets in the rear of the vehicle near the area where the stove was located.
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.
The young victims’ mother told WCCO-TV on Wednesday that Ty’rah was “such a bright kid” with “a huge personality,” and said her daughter “loved people.”
“My baby fought a good fight. She was so strong through the whole process. She was even stronger than I was,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie told WCCO she let her daughters keep sleeping in the van while she ran into the store to grab something.