Johnnie Collins nearly lost it when he saw firefighters pull the body of his longtime neighbor -- blackened by smoke and soot -- from inside her home. Emergency responders attempted to revive 83-year-old Elena Ortega as more neighbors gathered in the Conway Acres neighborhood just as the sun was rising Wednesday. But once the smoke settled, a suspicious scene emerged, officials said.
Orange County Sheriff's Office detectives said they think Ortega was murdered at her Turnbull Drive home. And evidence from inside revealed the blaze was intentionally set and unrelated to the way Ortega died, sheriff's spokeswoman Jane Watrel said in a statement.
A neighbor driving by spotted the smoke about 6:45 a.m. and called 911. When Orange County firefighters arrived, they found Ortega inside. They performed lifesaving techniques but couldn't save her, Fire Rescue spokesman John Mulhall said.
Collins said Ortega -- who had rewarded him with flan and wine for his lawn services -- was placed on a stretcher, her body heaving with each compression until it finally went limp.
"It has shaken me up," said Collins, 70. "She was just a lovely lady."
Collins' wife, Sarah, led a reporter behind their house to get a look at Ortega's fire-damaged home.
She pointed to the broken glass of her neighbor's broken bedroom windows and through it, clothes could be seen still hanging in Ortega's closet.
The fire appeared to be confined to inside the home and did little visible damage to the structure's exterior.
"I don't understand why anyone would want to hurt her," said Sarah Collins, 75. "It's just horrible."
Crime-scene investigators raked through the debris in the charred living room. Neighbors said Ortega kept her marble floors immaculate and polished her treasured ornaments from Cuba.
Sarah Collins said Ortega and her husband had lived in the one-story, four-bedroom house for more than 20 years, hosting checkers and rummy games on their screened back porch ringed by large cactus and well-kept greenery.
Ortega waited on Hector, her husband of 65 years, "hand and foot," Sarah Collins said, but the man's health had deteriorated in recent years. He was living at a nursing home at the time of the blaze.
Officials at the scene said Ortega moved around with the help of a walker and rarely left home. Family members told the Sheriff's Office she was self-sufficient.
Neighbors said relatives picked her up for grocery shopping or trips to visit her husband, but Ortega kept to herself. Occasionally, a caregiver would show up at the house, they said.
Onlookers from the neighborhood traded speculation about what may have happened.
"Not many people knew she was alone in there," said Theresa Gaskell, 57, who lives on nearby Darwood Drive. "Someone must've broke in and then set the place on fire."
Ortega's daughter arrived at the house after the blaze Wednesday but would not talk with reporters.
Johnnie Collins said relatives occasionally stayed with Ortega, and just last week, someone had been staying with the woman.
"I just wish someone would've been there with her this week, too," he said. "Maybe this wouldn't have happened."
Written by Orlando Sentinel