TARZANA -- A single mother who returned to exotic dancing full time after losing her job as a bill collector was doused with gasoline and set on fire outside a bikini bar early Thursday.
Police were searching for a man and woman in their 20s suspected of torching the 27-year-old dancer at Babes N' Beer Sports Bar about 1:30 a.m. after a dispute.
The dancer was in critical condition late Thursday at the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, with burns over 40 percent of her body.
Police did not release the woman's name, but a friend of 14 years identified her as Roberta Abdue Dos Santos Busby of Simi Valley. Until recent months, the Brazilian-born single mother had been working for a bill-collection agency and dancing part-time under the stage name Mia to help make ends meet.
"But when she was laid off, she needed the income and had no choice but to start working at the club more regularly," said the friend, who asked not to be named. "Then she took some time and wasn't dancing for a while.
"The shame is that just three nights ago, she had gone back and begun dancing every night."
Police asked the public for help in finding suspects Rianne Celine Theriault-Odom, 27, of North Hollywood, and Nathaniel Marquis Petrillo, 22, of Reseda.
Busby had been counting tips half an hour before closing time when she was called outside and attacked on the sidewalk, Los Angeles Police Department Lt. John Romero said.
She was able to scramble back inside the yellow building at 18454 Oxnard St., where the club's staff and patrons put out the flames using curtains, Romero said.
The suspects were described as Valley residents and frequent patrons of the bikini bar. They said the suspects had been in the club Wednesday night but that witnesses did not report any earlier incidents involving the victim. But friends of Busby said there was some kind of dispute before the attack.
"We are confident we know who the suspects are," said Romero. "The motive is. Police say Nathaniel Petrillo, 22, is a suspect in the attack outside of Babes N' Beer Sports Bar in Tarzana.
truly unclear for something this vicious. This was not an anonymous attack. They were known to people in the bar."
Busby has two daughters, ages 8 and 4 - and the youngest will turn 5 on Valentine's Day, her friend said. She described Busby as a good mother with a strong personality.
The friend said she received a call at 4 a.m. Thursday from another friend of Busby's, who said the dancer apparently had a minor altercation at the club with Theriault-Odom. The friend said Theriault-Odom might have also been a dancer at the club at one point.
Both Theriault-Odom and Petrillo had prior convictions, according to court records. Petrillo was convicted of drug possession in August 2008 and March 2007. He wasalso found guilty of credit card fraud in December 2006.
Odom was convicted of burglary in November 2005.
Lt. Steve Sambar, the officer in charge of detectives at the LAPD's West Valley Division, said he couldn't remember a similar attack.
"That's what makes this so heinous and why we're reaching out to the public for help," Sambar said. "People who would do something like this should not be on the streets."
Police described Theriault-Odom as about 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighing 140 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes, who sometimes wears her hair in what Romero described as "Farrah Fawcett style."
Petrillo was described as a black male, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighing 145 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes.
The suspects fled in a newer model sedan, possibly a Toyota Camry, heading west, police said. Police said that witnesses identified the suspects and evidence recovered from the scene helped further identify the two.
"We know the guy who did it," said Pancho Ochoa, manager of the Burrito El Chavo, around the corner from Babes N' Beer.
"The guy was short, quiet. He was a customer here about a year and a half. I couldn't believe he would do that. He was nice and (saying), 'Hi, how you doing?'
The attack occurred during Babes N' Beer's "Wine Wednesday," featuring half-price wine. The nightclub's marquee bears the image of a bikinied blonde leaning on a mug of beer as tall as she is. Its MySpace page touts lap dances and "seductive nightlife."
The club is next to a Baskin Robbins ice-cream shop and across from the Orange Line bus station at Oxnard and Reseda Boulevard.
Formerly a nude strip club called the Frisky Kitty, the club was converted to a bikini bar and re-branded as Babes N' Beer Sports Bar less than a year ago after a judge ruled the club violated a city zoning law barring nude dancing within 500 feet of homes.
That ruling followed a decade-long battle by the city to shut down the Frisky Kitty.
Busby's friends said they doubted there had been any kind of love triangle that led to the attack.
"I don't think Roberta knew these people," said another firend, who also wished to remain anonymous. "She had never mentioned them by name.
"We were told that they thought the woman (who attacked her) might have worked at the club, and that there had been some kind of altercation between Roberta and her attackers.
"But Roberta must not have put much stock in what happened because she went back on stage... then went into the dressing room where she was counting her money.
"We were told Roberta then got word that someone called her outside (the club). People saw her go out and a minute later they saw her running back inside...
"She ran in, yelling, 'Am I OK? Am I OK?'
"But she was on fire, and it was the club DJ who helped her and put out the flames."
Kelli Rix, director of burn services for the Grossman Burn Center, said Busby was resting in her room, her family at her side. Busby's two daughters were in the care of family members, according to close friends.
Friends said Busby, who speaks Portuguese and Spanish fluently as well as English, was born in Brazil but moved to the United States with her family while she was still a child. They said she attended Simi Valley High School.
"Roberta is a very independent, strong-minded, opinionated person," said a third friend. "She has a strong personality that some people might have misconstrued and taken to be offensive."
"But she really isn't. She has the biggest heart in the world. If you argue with her and five minutes later ask her for a dollar, she'd give you five. "She is kind and sweet, and no one who knew her could ever imagine anything like this happening."
As her Simi Valley neighbors became aware of her plight, they expressed sorrow and offered their prayers.
"My God, she's such a beautiful young woman," said Elvira Godinez, who lives in the same apartment complex. "She's always friendly, and a very quiet neighbor.
"I only knew her in passing. I would see her with her children, and she seemed like a very loving mother. God help her."
Staff Writers Dana Bartholomew, Jason Kandel, George Sanchez and Susan Abram contributed to this report.