CHICAGO (CBS) — It looked like a garage fire that was about to spread to an apartment building in Uptown.
But it turns out, someone threw charcoal on Maria Santiago and set her on fire Thursday morning, perhaps to cover up a murder.
The victim’s family says they last saw Santiago, 54, in the middle of the night with a couple of neighbors. But that when the fire started, those neighbors disappeared.
Ibes Santiago ran for help when she saw something was burning in the garage behind her home at 5039 N. Clark St. But nothing would prepare her for finding her sister.
“Blood all over, blood going down. She was burning over there,” she said.
Firefighters were called to the garage just before 10 a.m. They say someone threw charcoals at the woman’s body and set her on fire.
Santiago’s family says she had been in a third-floor apartment late Wednesday visiting neighbors.
Relatives say the men gave Santiago a television and that she helped them set it up, then left with them.
Santiago’s best friend, Wendy Pitre, says she was always afraid of the dark gangway leading from the alley near the garage to her apartment building. Yesterday, she said Santiago had a premonition about being attacked.
“She goes, a man’s going to grab me in that darkness. He’s going to rape me, and then he’s going to burn me in that garage,” she said.
Police searched trash bins, and investigators sealed the third floor apartment Santiago visited — for evidence. Santiago’s van was still parked nearby, the door partly open.
Neighbors said it’s a chilling crime they hope is solved soon.
“That’s really scary. And it’s right in our backyard,” Sharon Harmon said.
Family and friends say Santiago was a generous woman living with her mother and sister, and caring for them. They can’t imagine who could do something like this.
The burning victim was pronounced dead on the scene, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office.
There were no vehicles inside the garage, only a food cart of the type used by neighborhood merchants.
The building is located on the northern edge of Uptown, near Andersonville, nestled among boutique stores and other upscale businesses. The Wooden Spoon kitchenware shop and the Sacred Rose antique shop are located just to the north, and the popular nightspot T’s Bar and Restaurant is just to the south across Winnemac Avenue.