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Man Electrocuted in Botched Copper Wire Theft, Say Calif. Police; Family Tells Different Story

Southern California Man Dead After Botched Attempt to Steal Copper Wire, Say Police
Police say a man who was electrocuted was trying to steal copper, but his family says he was doing his job cleaning up a vacant lot. (Leonard Guillen)

SOUTH GATE, Calif. (CBS/KCAL/AP) A Southern California man is dead after what is believed to be a botched attempt to steal copper wire from an electrical vault in South Gate; however, his family claims he was doing his job by maintaining the property.

Jose Fernando Santillanes, 36, was killed at 4:14 p.m. Saturday when he touched a live copper wire, triggering an explosion and flash fire on a vacant lot, South Gate police Lt. Keith Hupp told CBS affiliate KCAL.

The victim's wife Maria Cortez had accompanied her husband to the lot and tried to pull him away from the vault; however, the electricity traveled through her body and she was badly burned.

The 33-year-old was taken to St. Francis Medical Center, and was later transferred to the Grossman Burn Centers.

Not far from the explosion, approximately 15 feet, police found the man's two small children ages 3 and 9 sitting inside a truck, but luckily, they were not injured.

Authorities believed Santillanes was trying to steal the copper wire from the abandoned vault.

Police say they have criminal evidence that indicates he was trying to steal copper from the vault.

"Copper theft has been a problem for the past several years due to the high value of copper," Hupp said. "Unfortunately sometimes people don't know when wires are live, and these were definitely live."

However, the victim's family and neighbors told KCAL Jose Santanillanes had been cleaning up that area for years.

"Hopefully it all clears up because its not fair that they come here and they work and something like this happened. It's sad," neighbor Karla Hernandez said.

The victim's brother Francisco Santillanes told KTLA that his brother and sister-in-law were hired to pull weeds and pick up trash in the area, and believes that his brother accidentally stepped on a live wire while doing his job.

Francisco Santillanes told KTLA Sunday, "He's an honest person, he was working to maintain his family in one piece and now we lost my brother and it's possible we're gonna loose my sister in law,"