Former San Francisco Firefighter Left Legally Blind by Fire Claims Caretaker Stole $130,000 in Life Savings

A former San Francisco firefighter left legally blind from a fire says her caretaker has run off with her life savings.

Melanie Stapper on Monday attended a settlement hearing in Sonoma County court to be in the same courtroom as Kimberly Van Vorst, who is accused of stealing the former firefighter's life savings.

Stapper estimates the loss at $130,000 -- money she did not know was missing until Van Vorst disappeared.

"Somebody actually went and looked it up and found out there are massive charges on my credit card," Stapper said. "And checks written that I had nothing to do with."

Stapper and two other firefighters -- Louis Mambretti and Keith Onishi -- on March 9, 1995 were trapped inside a burning garage.

"I was really strong so I thought I'll try and get the garage open," Stapper said. "I couldn't and then my tank ran out, and I just breathed in fire and suffocated."

Mambretti died in the blaze, while Onishi and Stapper survived.

Stapper's injuries from the fire caused her to be legally blind and in need of a full-time caregiver.

"She takes like 30 medications a day," Onishi said of Stapper. "She has seizures, she can't see."

Nearly 20 years after the tragic blaze, Onishi has kept in touch with Stapper, who now lives in Guerneville.

"The night that we both got injured was the first night that I met her," he said. "But I wasn't going to abandon her -- she has nobody."

The women's firefighters association has donated $1,000 to Stapper in helping her deal with her financial loss. Stapper has also set up an online petition calling for the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office to impose full legal actions against Van Vorst.

The settlement hearing is scheduled to continue on Oct. 9.

An account to help Stapper has been set up at the SF Fire Credit Union.

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