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Architect Facing Manslaughter Case in Firefighter Death Tried to Rebuild Below Code, Prosecutor Says

Posted Nov 29, 2012 3:53 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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An architect facing an unusual involuntary manslaughter case over the death of a Los Angeles firefighter as a result of a blaze allegedly caused by grossly substandard fireplace construction tried to rebuild his damaged $11 million mansion with the same defect, a prosecutor contends.

In an email to the builder reconstructing his home after the fatal fire, defendant Gerhard Albert Becker told the contractor to use similar fireplaces and wrote "I want this to be installed after the final inspection so that we don't have any final delays by the inspector," Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney told a superior court judge on Wednesday. "Not only did he construct a fireplace that killed Glen Allen. He wanted to do it again."

The well-known German architect was working on his first project in this country, acting as the builder and general contractor, when prosecutors say he had a contractor put outdoor-use gas fireplaces in his own Hollywood Hills home, in installations made of wood framing and drywall that were powered by extension cords plugged into electrical outlets hidden in the walls, according to the Associated Press and a City News Service article posted by NBC Southern California.

Judge Michael Tynan presided over the preliminary hearing and agreed that Becker should be prosecuted in the felony case, the AP reports. "He acted recklessly and with gross negligence," Tynan said at the conclusion of the lengthy hearing, finding that Becker acted intentionally and deceptively as he evaded building codes during construction.

Attorney Donald Re represents Becker. He questioned the credibility of the building inspector's testimony and argued that the case should be dismissed, saying that the architect had been sleeping in his home, which he wouldn't have done if he had realized it posed any danger.

“He thought that fireplace was OK. He thought that construction was OK,” Re said of Becker, the City News article recounts.

Becker is scheduled to be arraigned in December.

Allen, 61, who was a veteran firefighter, died after a ceiling collapsed on him during the Feb. 16, 2011 blaze. Investigators said it started in a fireplace.

As detailed in previous ABAJournal.com posts, Becker told investigators he planned and built the fireplaces in the Hollywood Hills mansion himself. Authorities said a building inspector found no fireplaces in the home before a certificate of occupancy was granted and was told Becker didn't intend to install any, but fireplaces were constructed at some point.

An affidavit attached to a search warrant said the fireplace construction "fails to meet any standards for approved fireplaces," citing, among other issues, one that was not vented to the exterior of the house and the installation of ceramic tile or slate glued on top of combustible wood framing and drywall in place of standard noncombustible materials such as brick or stone liner material resistant to high temperatures.

It appears from the affidavit that all of the fireplaces were gas rather than wood-burning and were manufactured for use outdoors rather than indoors.

Becker reportedly told investigators that he considered his installations architectural or decorative features, rather than fireplaces.

Earlier coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Architect Who Designed and Built Home in Which Firefighter Died Is Charged in Manslaughter Case"

ABAJournal.com: "Fireplaces in $11M Home Were Made of Drywall, Officials Say in Manslaughter Case Against Architect"

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