7 Cars Were Set Ablaze At Anime Los Angeles. What Happened?

Featured image via Crescent Shay’s Youtube video.

Seven cars burned at Anime Los Angeles. What really happened? These are their stories.

It’s around 2 AM, January the 13th, and John Razi, known as Leon to his friends, is hungry. It’s so late into Saturday of Anime Los Angeles 15 that it might as well be Sunday, and what better way to top off a long, exciting day enjoying the sights and sounds of the convention than an impromptu trip to the local Denny’s?  Suddenly, a fire truck goes roaring past, in the dead of night. At almost the same time, John’s cell phone rings. His roommate is calling, back at the Azure.

“[They] told me that there was a fire and that my car was definitely gone,” John recalled.

 

Pictured above, one angle of the aftermath via Crescent Shay’s Youtube video.

 

Accounts of the fire vary, from person to person. Some were alerted by the blare of the fire alarm. Others, like witness Natalie, woke to sound of “someone pounding on the door and shouting FIRE.” For Julia Moreno Jenkins it was “3 AM when the officer knocked on the door… looking for me.”

Why was the officer looking for her?

“It was obvious that my car was the target of the arson attack.”

Pictured above: Julia Moreno Jenkins via @Katiebe_Photography 

 

To understand what happened that night at Anime Los Angeles, it’s important that we go back to about four years ago, when Julia first met suspect Matt Toyotome through her boyfriend John Hale and others in the community. John and Julia, cosplayers of the Power Ranger variety, went on to create the Armored Ranger web series on Youtube with those friends. Julia was Pink, John was Red. Matt was the Yellow Ranger.

About the series, Julia stated “it was always meant to be just fun and just being ourselves but as Power Rangers.” The lighthearted endeavor featured characters based on the actors’ real selves- they even used their own first names in the series.

Pictured above, still from “Armored Rangers Opening Theme” via Youtube.

 

Though Julia and Matt were never close, she explained “I did consider him a friend.” And why not? They were part of a group that had bonded over their shared fandom.  They all went to the same events, like birthday parties. Besides, he knew she had a boyfriend.

A little over a year ago, things changed.

Image still from Episode One via Youtube.

 

Julia had decided to join an another YouTube filming project called Everybody Loves Luigi. “What’s ridiculous… is that it’s not like I had stopped being on the Armored Rangers.” Julia had simply decided to branch out, take on more projects. Show independent interest in the things that she enjoys.

Matt would not stand for it.

He demanded to be on the other show, and it’s not hard to see why. Julia’s new character was just that- a character. Wendy is a tough girl, the opposite of her sweet Pink Ranger persona. This Julia wears heavy make-up, gets into fistfights- the series has adult language and adult situations. It’s played for humor, and the series is fun and light-hearted, but it doesn’t follow the wholesome clean cut image of the Power Rangers aesthetic.

Image still from Episode Two via Youtube.

 

To Julia, “it seemed like [he] actually felt entitled to what I did and who I was, in a way.” His unsettling behavior increased along with his delusions. He began messaging others about their “strong bond” and how he “didn’t want to be seperated.” He claimed to be in love with Julia, blaming her for all his life’s problems. His obsession grew. Eventually, Julia and her boyfriend were no longer able to justify maintaining the friendship. Julia cut contact with Matt.

And that was that. Except, of course, we know it wasn’t.

Despite Julia’s requests, Matt ignored her feelings and ramped up the harassment. He even went  so far as to show up at her house in November 2018 to beg for their friendship to resume. Even Julia’s father, who dealt with the situation, said he “felt threatened.” When Julia changed her profile picture on Facebook, he messaged her best friend. He said he didn’t like that picture. He said he wished Julia would die.

 

Image via Julia M. Jenkins, taken the night of the incident.

 

Speaking to Julia, it’s clear to see her guilt over the situation. “I wish I had gotten a restraining order much earlier. I regret trying to be kind toward him. I wish I would have followed my instinct.” It’s hard for her to talk about the other victims, she is “heartbroken… it tears me up.” It is difficult to see such an obviously compassionate person shouldering the blame for the situation, but not unexpected. The internet is an echo-chamber.  You need only look to find the dark side, questioning every moment that led to the incident.

But would a restraining order have helped? Would it even have been granted? A civil restraining order in the state of California requires a higher standard of evidence than one in domestic violence cases. It require “clear and convincing” evidence with specific threats and/or physical harm. Even Facebook’s own manual on credible violence abuse standards available online states:

Bonnie, a friend of the victim, made a public Facebook post afterwards to gather awareness for the situation.

“I just has a surge of incidents happen- and guys going, ‘oh it was probably harmless,’ etc.”

 

The response was an outpouring of sexist vitriol that left her reeling. Still, when pressed, she admitted that the response was “sadly, not really [surprising].”

 

 

Image via Julia M. Jenkins, taken the night of the incident.

 

It comes down to this:

When Matt Tomotoya took two cans of gasoline, pouring them carelessly enough that they splashed onto surrounding cars, he knew he was breaking the law. As the gasoline trickled down the incline to surround the other six, he ignored the collateral damage. When he tried to casually light the blaze with a cigarette that failed, he had time to change his mind. When he knelt down with a lighter to try again, he knew it was a crime.

“A restraining order is only a paper,” Julia admits. “If he decides to [do something], I am powerless to stop it.”

 

Police released this photo of suspected arsonist Matthew Toyotome.

 

Which brings us back to the night everything goes down.

Sabrina Snowdon, who prefers to be known as Blake, evacuated with a friend after hearing the fire alarm. Bewildered by the turn of events and unsure as to what was happening, they found themselves under-prepared in the cold just past the corner of Holt and Vineyard. A kind Samaritan gave the two some socks to keep their feet warm, as their feet were bare in the haste and confusion of getting to safety. At this point, they began to hear about a car fire and began seeing video and photos posted on social media from those who were able to get closer to the commotion.

So it was, wrapped in a friend’s blanket, wearing borrowed socks, being held by friend Ellen “I made my way over and sure enough, my car was there, being put out by the fire department.”

 

Image via FB post shared by Blake.

 

For Vané, a long time con attendee, the night was full of twists and turns. Recently, Vané  became more acquainted with the cosplay scene. “[I thought] oh this is cool, people are dressing up… I can get into that maybe.” She also became close with friends she felt that she could really identify with who use cosplay and fandom as a way “[of] making life a little less stressful and [to] bond together.”

Along with her friend CrescentShay, Vané made the decision to join the Masquerade for the first time. They developed a short skit where the characters Pink Diamond and White Diamond would lipsync to a song from Disney’s Tangled. The team dedicated time and effort into setting up staging and working on the outfits so they were both visually appealing and also able to move properly with choreography. The used stage “ninjas” to help with tech. Shay even added in lights. “[It was] more for experience,” Vané explained.  

 

Performance still from Youtube video upload.

 

It was a hit.

They won best performance, an experience Vané describes as “amazing.” Among the various prizes and accolades was a new sewing machine- one the group decided unanimously to gift to Vané. Everyone was so nice and encouraging- even the other contestants were coming up to tell the duo how much they loved the performance. After celebrating their success at the ALA dance and watching a late night show, the group made their way back to the hotel.

“[There was] barely a gap between when we got back to the hotel and when everything happened.”

When the fire alarm went off, Vané was knocked out. She had been up at four in order to perfect her costume and set up for Masquerade, after all. Groggy, she thought “it’s a convention… someone tripped it or someone’s glue gun caught on fire.”

Then they heard the yells. “Fire! Fire!”

 

Crowds wait outside in the cold while smoke billows above them, via CrescentShay Youtube video.

 

“We need to get out of here,” she recalled thinking. “This isn’t a joke.” In her haste to reach safety, she did not get to find her phone or glasses. She did not even put on shoes. “It was kind of frantic,” she noted. People pushed in the hallway on the way out in their confusion. A wet, steep include greeted them outside the nearest exit and a good Samaritan helped Vané and her friends over to get to the lot. One of her friends said there were cars on fire. The smoke, the only thing visible from that angle, was coming from the back.

“I knew I parked my car towards the back.”

 

Image via CrescentShay Youtube video.

 

Vané took off running toward the scene, something that she admits was a bad idea. “If one of the cars blew up, [debris] could go anywhere.” She was in a panic, concerned not only about her car, so new it still had temporary tags- but also about what was inside. Vané was still recovering from a personal tragedy. “I was scared I was going to lose some of the last things I had of my brother,” she confessed.

Vané is so petite that she had to be lifted over the wall- without her glasses, she saw what she later knew to be Julia and Leon’s cars still on fire. “Those were the ones… coated in gasoline.”

Despite what she had seen, Vané couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

“[But] what am I really going to do, I can’t really put out the fire.” So Vané went back with her friends. Despite the rumor mill churning in the among those waiting in the adjacent hotel lobby, Vané remained skeptical.

“How can it be arson? Arson at a convention, that’s so unreasonable.”

“There’s no way it could be arson”

 

Crowds find refuge,  via CrescentShay Youtube video.

 

On the way back to the hotel, Vané managed to get a glimpse of the parking lot. All she could see was the trunk area.

“Because I was comparing it to Leon and Julia’s, okay, if my car doesn’t look like that, my car’s fine.”

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It was not until the next morning, packing up the trolly to head to the car, that Vané saw the truth about the damage. She was casually scrolling on her phone when she saw someone’s story, linking a video. In the thumbnail, “I saw it was my car.”

Vané ran outside. She had her glasses on, in the daylight, and there were no firemen or police cordons blocking the way.

“Everything… obliterated.”

 

Image via GoFundMe.

 

The engine was so melted that bare wires were exposed to the air. The tires had melted to the cement. The frame was sagging against the ground because the parts of the car that would hold it upright had been melted away. All of the front windows had shattered from the heat- glass was everywhere. A smoky haze settled over the scene from the still smoldering wreckage. To put out the blaze, the fire department had drenched the remains as best they could. Many items inside the car were ruined- “partially burnt and partially soaked.” Even the sentimental items that survived inside her trunk were smoke damaged. They reeked of burnt rubber and metal.

She had just received a pendant to hang in her car- a kind of “good luck charm slash congratulations on your new car [thing].” It was taken away, towed off with the hulk of what was once her new car. “I had to leave it there,” she said sadly.

 

Image via Julia M. Jenkins, taken the night of the incident.

 

Reeling, the victims were left with so many questions. Who was responsible? What could be done? For some, it was simple. The two cars closest to Vané were rentals, covered under mandatory insurance under the state of California. They were towed away quickly, the steps quickly taken care of by the third party rental company. For the others, it would not be so easy.

Julia, when asked who might want to cause her harm, was at a loss. She couldn’t think of anyone she considered an enemy. It was her boyfriend, John Hale, who made the suggestion that it might be Toyotome. The officer zeroed in on the information. He then took them back to view the security footage, one at a time. Both of them confirmed.

It was Matt.

Image still from security footage, released by police.

 

John Razi, also known as Leon, recalls that after his mad dash back from the late night trip to Denny’s “when I walked up… I saw the wreckage and I just sort of broke down.” His car was also a fairly new purchase. “I hadn’t even had it a year.” He was now responsible for finding a way home back to Vegas, more than three hours away.

All of the victims had to now participate in the sad ritual of documentation for insurance- taking picture after picture of their ruined property. Because Julia’s car was needed for the investigation, she had to take the pictures of her own car immediately before it was towed away. Other than the police officers, she was the only one to be able to take pictures of her own car.

“It [was] nothing more than a shell,” she remembered sadly.

 

Image via Julia M. Jenkins, taken the night of the incident.

 

So now what?

The victims faces varying degrees of difficulty in the muddled confusion. Between unsympathetic hotels holding hard and fast to check out times for victims who quite literally had nowhere to go, to convention heads who were unable to meet with those affected, there was nothing but uncertainty in the future. Some were even mislead by insurance agents, confused about policies involving police investigations, sure their cars wouldn’t receive even partial coverage. Even for those who are covered, arson investigations are slow. It will take time to resolve their situations, and in the meantime, there are rental car fees, ubers, deductibles.

“I still have water bills to pay, the electricity bills to pay, I came back already drained and I still had to handle these, I had to handle work,” one victim explains.  

 

Image via Julia M. Jenkins, taken the night of the incident.

 

For this article, I spoke to four confirmed victims who are in need of help. They have reached out and, unanimously, they have nothing but love for the community.

According to Leon, “most people have been completely sympathetic and eager to help us all out, and it’s just really heartwarming. I’m glad I met the other victims too, I just wish it were under better circumstances.”

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Blake was gratified by “the unity amongst the community to help- everyone has been truly incredible.  We have a lot of differences across the board that show when it comes to opinions… 

but regarding this situation, I have seen such an outpouring of love and support for everyone involved.”

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Vané admits that “the first day, I was like why am I even in this scene at all? But the community is so supportive of each other. Of course there are differences and dilemmas, but at the end of the day they help out each other as much as they can. It’s been nice to have that sense of community, that compassion in that sense that, you know, I go to conventions all the time, this could have been me. This could have been anyone. If I hadn’t parked there, someone else would have taken that spot and it would be someone else in this position.”

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And Julia?

“I’m so so thankful and it’s such a blessing that in all of this no one was hurt. Also it’s been so wonderful seeing all the support and love that the community has had for me and that really has been a part of what has allowed me to say my story and has made me want to share it. Despite what has happened to me, I still love cosplaying and I still will continue to cosplay. It really helps me to know that the cosplay community supports me 100% and I can’t thank them enough.”

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Acceptance and support should be our creed in the community. Take care of each other. As one victim said, “even if people stop talking about it, we’re not fine and it’s not settled.”

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