A widow, whose body was found at the scene of a Castro Valley house fire early Tuesday, was killed in a "brutal murder" before the suspect set her home ablaze to destroy evidence, Alameda County sheriff's officials said.
The 59-year-old woman, who was well-loved and in "very good standing in the community," was found in a garage attached to her home on the 1800 Grove Way, where Alameda County firefighters doused a one-alarm fire around 2:50 a.m., Sgt. Ray Kelly said.
Responding to a report of a fire, crews entered the house, but were not immediately able to find the woman, which struck them as "suspicious," Kelly said.
Soon thereafter, first responders found the "deceased and badly burned" woman in a garage abutting the house, Kelly said. Due to the "unique" nature of the scene, Alameda county fire officials then reached out to the sheriff's office, he said.
Investigators realized that the woman, who lived alone, had been a victim of homicide after she was transported to the coroner's office, according to Kelly. That prompted sheriff's officials to tweet around 3:30 p.m. that they were looking at murder and arson.
An autopsy revealed that the woman was "murdered at the scene and the fire was likely arson used to cover the tracks of the killer," Kelly said.
Although Kelly held back details of how the woman was slain, he confirmed that she was not shot. The blaze was likely to burn the crime scene and "destroy evidence," including DNA, he confirmed.
"This was a very brutal murder," Kelly said, adding that both the way the woman was killed and the subsequent fire are of grave concern to law enforcement officials and the Castro Valley community.
As of Tuesday evening, "there are a lot unknowns," but the widow is not someone who anyone expected would be killed in such a "horrific crime," Kelly said.
Neighbors were stunned.
"Didn't seem like she had a bad bone in her body," said Randy Marino. "Innocent, just innocent."
Investigators are looking into whether the woman was killed during a burglary that somehow went awry or if she was targeted. They're checking surveillance video on Grove Way and nearby streets with the hope a suspect or vehicle was caught on camera between 10 p.m. Monday and 3 a.m. Tuesday.
Police did not release the woman’s name, but detectives were interviewing her family members and neighbors to see if anyone has information.
"I'm almost in shock hearing it just now," said Patrick O'Neill. "It doesn't seem like something that would ever happen. My heart goes out to their family. I just cannot understand what would cause someone to do something like that."
Kelly believes the blaze "smoldered and went unnoticed" for a while before the flames grew and reached the house's attic. That's when neighbors would have been able to see the fire, he said.
One firefighter suffered a minor injury while crews battled the flames, and was taken to a hospital, fire officials said.
Detectives spent all of Tuesday at the house, and were expected to be there through the evening. Kelly said that officials do not have any suspect leads or information as yet.
Pictures from the scene showed a charred SUV in a damaged garage. The blackened remains of boxes, tables and other items were also strewn around.
Crews are preparing for a storm that is expected to hit the Bay Area on Thursday, and clearing debris from inside and outside the house.
Many first responders who worked around the clock at the site of a deadly Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36 people on Dec. 2, were in Castro Valley on Tuesday, Kelly said. It's unfortunate because they're doing similar "tough work," except that it's on a smaller scale and includes "intricate forensics for a murder case," Kelly said.
Kelly said investigators are now marching up and down Grove Way and also onto side streets in search of surveillance footage. In particular, they are interested in cameras that may have captured the neighborhood's goings-on between 10 p.m. Monday and 1 a.m. Tuesday, he said. People with information are asked to contact the sheriff's office at 510-667-3636.
NBC Bay Area's Michelle Roberts and Ian Cull contributed to this report.