A German architect who designed a Los Angeles home where a veteran firefighter died in a blaze has been sentenced to jail.
Gerhard Albert Becker, who designed and oversaw the construction of his luxurious Hollywood Hills Home, has been accused of knowingly violating building codes and ignoring safety recommendations by installing four fireplaces intended for outdoor use into the home.
On the night of February 16, 2011, a blaze broke out on the top floor of the 12,000 square foot house where one of the outdoor fireplaces was located. Becker and his girlfriend had recently moved in following the approval of an occupancy certificate. They managed to flee but when firefighters arrived to the scene, the entire attic was engulfed in flame.
This in turn caused the plaster and timber ceiling to collapse, injuring several firefighters and trapping firefighter Glenn Allen. Chainsaws were used to free the 61-year-old Allen from the debris, but he died two days later in hospital due to a lack of oxygen while he was trapped. Allen had served with the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) for 36 years.
Last month, Becker pleaded no contest to manslaughter and was sentenced to three years probation with one year in county jail. He is expected to serve just six months of this sentence despite prosecutors seeking a four-year term.
Becker was said to have installed natural gas fire pits inside and, according to reports, used combustible materials to frame the fireplace instead of brick. He was also accused of not building firebreaks, which could have delayed the speed of the fire.
In a formal statement from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Superior Court Judge Robert Perry alluded to a shared responsibility for Allen's death between Becker and property inspectors. He said he believed City Building and Safety inspectors should have discovered problems in construction prior to allowing the home to be occupied.
However, Los Angeles building inspector Brad Bascos told the court at the preliminary hearing he had no knowledge of fireplaces being installed, adding that he did not see them during inspections and would not have approved them as they were in violation of building codes.
“Today's guilty verdict in the case of Gerhard Becker, should send a clear message and warning to those who try to circumvent those codes,” said the LAFD in a statement released following Becker's sentence.
Frank Lima, union president for United Firefighters of Los Angeles City told the New York Times the deadly blaze was made possible due to “a perfect storm, with the budget cuts and an architect who cut corners and ultimately one of our fire fighters paid the price.”
Becker no longer owns the home. He had it rebuilt and sold it for US$7.5 million in 2012.