Criminal Justice

Architect facing manslaughter case over fatal fire at his $11M home says he has been unfairly blamed


Gerhard Albert Becker understands that a firefighter died while trying to save his multi-milliondollar Los Angeles home, which he designed and built.

But the 49-year-old German architect, who is facing an unusual manslaughter prosecution due to alleged design defects, says it is “disgusting” that prosecutors are blaming him for, as Becker describes the government’s case, “willingly building a trap in my house.” Facing up to four years in a California prison, if convicted, he has rejected an offered plea deal for two years, reports LA Weekly in a lengthy article.

Bringing such a case against an architect is almost unheard-of, the article notes, because ordinarily multiple factors are at issue when a defective building is determined to have caused a fatal injury. And, indeed, lawyers for Becker point to what they contend were inaccurate statements by a city building inspector. An expert’s report also documented problematic firefighting techniques that could also lend weight to his claim that he should not be held responsible for the death of firefighter Glenn Allen, 61, as a result of a roof collapse.

Central to the government’s case is a custom-built natural gas firepit that Becker purchased at a cost of nearly $3,500. It was intended, as he knew, to be installed outside, not inside. But he not only installed it in a fireplace within the home, officials say, but surrounded it with a wood and drywall frame. Although covered with cement board and tile, this was not as flameproof as a standard brick or metal fireplace frame would have been. And the manufacturer intended the pit to be installed outdoors, with eight feet of clearance overhead. Becker’s installation allegedly provided 18 inches of clearance, the article explains.

The firepit ignited the fatal blaze of Feb. 16, 2011, officials say. Becker says he thought it would be safe and wouldn’t have been sleeping in the home at the time of the fire himself, with his girlfriend, if he had thought it posed a hazard.

At issue in the case is whether a building inspector signed off on the fireplace installation. Becker says he did; the inspector insists the fireplace was installed after his inspection.

Asked if he felt he’d made a mistake by putting a firepit intended for outdoor use inside, the architect tells LA Weekly it’s unclear to him why the firepit wouldn’t have been appropriate for an interior installation.

“I am aware. I just don’t see the difference,” Becker wrote in an email responding to a sales representative’s reminder that the pit was to be used outdoors only. “I[t] is a pit with a pipe.”

The house, which has been repaired, is now on the market with an asking price of $11 million, LA Weekly reports. The second time around, a fireplace intended for indoor use was installed. It cost around $30,000, according to prosecutors.

Allen’s wife has sued Becker civilly over his death. However, she will face an uphill battle establishing liability, says law professor Greg Keating of the University of Southern California, because firefighters are deemed to assume the risk of their dangerous job.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Architect Facing Manslaughter Case in Firefighter Death Tried to Rebuild Below Code, Prosecutor Says”

L.A. Now (Los Angeles Times): “Architect accused in firefighter’s death to face trial”

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