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Criminal Justice

Fireplaces in $11M Home Were Made of Drywall, Officials Say in Manslaughter Case Against Architect

Posted Feb 16, 2012 3:35 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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An $11 million mansion in Hollywood Hills was a deathtrap, officials are contending in an unusual criminal case brought against its architect after the death of a Los Angeles firefighter.

Despite the home's hefty pricetag, the fireplaces in place at the time of the blaze did not meet building standards and presented an "extreme immediate and imminent hazard," according to an affidavit attached to an article in the L.A. Now blog of the Los Angeles Times.

Architect Gerhard Albert Becker, 48, was arrested over the weekend when he arrived at the Los Angeles airport from Spain and initially held without bail. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment yesterday in the involuntary manslaughter case, and his bail was set at $2 million, the Associated Press reports.

Court documents (PDF) linked to the newspaper article include a search warrant and affidavit that describe the alleged cause of the Feb. 16, 2011 fire and say Becker was both the owner and designer of the home.

He told fire investigators he is licensed as an architect in Germany and Spain and planned and built the fireplaces himself because he wanted to be sure the job was done right, the affidavit says. According to officials, the home had no fireplaces when a building inspection was performed and Becker said at that time he didn't intend to install any, although plans called for a standard gas fireplace.

The affidavit says a building inspector determined that the fireplaces in the home were not constructed in a typical manner, which would have involved the use of noncombustible materials such as brick or stone, liner material that was resistant to high temperatures and an angled design intended to help vent heat and ash through a flue leading out of the building.

In the Hollywood Hills home, by contrast, the fireplaces were built of wood framing and lined on the bottom, sides and top with combustible drywall that ordinarily is used for standard walls, according to the document. Ceramic tile or slate was glued to the drywall.

Among other ways in which the building inspector found that the construction "fails to meet any standards for approved fireplaces," the affidavit says, one of the fireplaces was vented into the interior of the mansion. It appears from the affidavit that all of the fireplaces were gas, rather than wood-burning, and allegedly were manufactured for use outdoors rather than indoors.

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

Glenn Allen, a Los Angeles firefighter, was buried in debris after the ceiling of the home collapsed during the fire, the affidavit says. Unconscious and not breathing when he was rescued several minutes later, he died in a hospital two days after the fire. An autopsy determined the cause to be mechanical asphyxiation.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said that the fire started as a result of gross negligence, the AP article reports. As far as he is aware, the case against Becker may be the only one in which alleged building defects resulted in an involuntary manslaughter charge.

Additional coverage:

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

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