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Detroit — What started out as a house fire has turned into a homicide investigation after police determined the body of a 91-year-old victim had been beaten and likely doused with gasoline on the city’s northwest side.

The victim was identified as Paul Monchnik, who lived alone, according to his son, Scott Monchnik, 56, of West Bloomfield.

Police on Monday said a suspect was caught on surveillance video driving the victim’s van to a nearby gas station for gasoline.

According to Sgt. Michael Woody, police and and fire personnel were called to the home on the 20500 block of Bentler at about 2:50 a.m. Monday.

“Investigators found that the body was covered with an accelerant, most likely gasoline, and that it had sustained potentially fatal trauma to the body prior to being set on fire,” Woody said. “There are indications that the house was broken into and that there was a robbery. A van belonging to the victim was also missing.”

The van appeared to be the only possession stolen from the scene, Chief James Craig said.

Police also reported a suspected bullet wound in the victim’s head. His body was found near the front door of the living room.

“It’s still preliminary,” Craig said of the investigation. “We don’t want to go into details on that at this point.”

Results of an autopsy were pending Monday evening, according to a spokesman for the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“There was a burglary, and we believe during the suspect’s entry into the home, there was an attack,” Craig said. “In order for the suspect to cover his tracks, he decided to go leave the location, obtain some gasoline, return and set the victim and the home on fire.”

CLOSE

Police have released this video of a suspect wanted in connection with a fatal fire that occurred in the 20500 block of Bentler.

Police a photo and video of the suspect from surveillance footage at the gas station. The man was described by police as about 5-foot-9 and in his early 20s. He has a medium complexion and was wearing a red or orange skull cap, gray hoodie and black pants.

“I’m comfortable that with the help from the citizens, we will be able to identify this offender,” said Sgt. Michael Russell with the arson task force and homicide. “I’m sure he’s from the neighborhood. He’s quite comfortable from what we were able to find out. It’s very senseless, and hopefully we can catch him sooner rather than later.”

Craig appealed to the public for help breaking the case.

“It’s senseless. Like all our crimes, it’s senseless. But this one in particular: an elderly man, alone in his home, and someone makes the decision to do this,” Craig said. “We are asking for the public’s help. This is someone’s grandfather, someone’s father, a great neighbor, a longtime Detroiter.”

The victim had last spoken with his son on Sunday, according to police. Monchnik told his son then that the keys to his vehicle — a silver 2000 Chevrolet Ventura van with license plate no. CNU1721 — were missing. Paul Monchnik also had said some kids had cleaned snow off the vehicle earlier in the day, his son told police.

Family members received a call from neighbors early Monday reporting the house fire, Scott Monchnik said.

“There was no fire when we got here; it was out,” he said. “But everything was charred. I don’t know what went on, but his car is missing.”

The younger Monchnik said it is unlikely the van was borrowed with his father’s permission.

“There’s nobody else that would borrow the car,” he said. “Nobody lived with him.”

Scott Monchnik grew up in the home that burned early Monday, he said.

“It’s been a stable neighborhood,” he said. “I don’t think this (incident) is a typical thing for this block.”

Monchnik was a self-employed television repairman for more than 50 years, his son said.

“He’s probably been up and down every street in the city,” Scott Monchnik said. “If you gave him an address, he could tell you the cross streets.”

In retirement, the man stuck to a well-known daily routine that began at the Ram’s Horn at 12 Mile and Northwestern, his son said. He had a regular table, near the front door and cash register.

Despite his age, Monchnik was healthy, took no medications and “cherished his independence,” his son said.

He worked hard throughout life to provide for his family. His wife died seven years ago. The couple had three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

He first met his great-grandchildren, ages 2 and 3, from California, during a trip to the zoo just weeks before his death.

“For whatever reason, they got in their heads to visit in the fall,” Scott Monchnik said of the children’s parents. “And it’s good they did.”

The death is a particularly hard blow to the family, just days before Thanksgiving.

“This is not the way anybody’s holiday should be,” Scott Monchnik said. “(My dad) always saw the good in people. He’ll be missed.”

Monchnik said his family is shocked to be touched by violent crime.

“It would have been nice for him to go out in his own way, on his own time,” Scott Monchnik said. “I hear these stories every day on my way to work, and I think I’m glad it’s not my dad. And this morning, it was.”

Those with information in the case are asked to call Crime Stoppers at (800) SPEAK-UP or Detroit Police Homicide at (313) 596-2260.

hfournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4616

Detroit News Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.

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