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Hollywood Homeowner Gets Jail for Fire that Killed Firefighter

Prosecutors claim the fire in the 1500 block of Viewsite Drive was traced to a negligently installed fireplace.

Patch file photo
Patch file photo

By City News Service

An architect who owned, designed and built a luxury Hollywood Hills home that caught fire in 2011 -- resulting in a ceiling collapse that killed a firefighter -- pleaded no contest Friday to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to a year in jail as part of a three-year probationary term.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry imposed the term on Gerhard Albert Becker over the objection of Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney, who had offered the 49-year-old German national a two-year county jail term.

Becker could have faced as much as four years in county jail, had he gone to trial and been convicted in the death of Los Angeles city firefighter Glenn Allen, a 36-year veteran of the department.

Becker surrendered to begin serving time in county jail Dec. 16 and received credit for 68 days already served and 68 days of good-time credit. He has about four more months to serve behind bars, and is then expected to be deported out of the United States as a result of his plea, according to Carney.

The judge called it a "very sad case," but said he believed he was imposing the "appropriate" term with Becker being ordered to serve the first 365 days of his three-year probationary period in jail.

"No sentence that this court imposes can bring back Mr. Allen," the judge said.

Perry said he believed the Feb. 16, 2011, blaze -- in which the 61-year- old firefighter suffered injuries from which he died two days later -- was "clearly unintentional" and that there were "significant legal issues with the case."

More than a dozen firefighters -- most of whom fought the blaze alongside Allen -- were in the packed courtroom for the hearing, along with numerous family members of Allen.

"I wake up each morning knowing that Glenn is dead. He is not just on a long shift at the fire station. He is not coming back!", the victim's wife said of the man she met at church when she was 5 and he was 10. "My life has been ripped to shreds. I will keep going, but it will never be the same."

Melanie Allen noted that the loss of her husband had been felt by many others, including his fellow firefighters and his church family, and that she has received countless cards and letters recounting how he had been a key player in saving lives in critical situations.

"We had such plans for retirement, which was so close," she said, noting that their daughter gave birth to his grandson a day after he died.

Becker was charged with the felony count nearly a year after the blaze at the newly constructed home in the 1500 block of Viewsite Drive -- which, according to the prosecution, was traced to a negligently installed inside fireplace that was designed only for outdoor use.

He sold the house for $7.5 million and used some of the proceeds to post $2 million bail, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The prosecutor told the judge that Becker "was driven by two things -- costs and time constraints," noting that the architect had wanted to market the house to television companies for use in TV shows, including "Germany's Next Top Model."

"Glenn Allen died because the defendant put an outdoor fireplace inside his house ... The defendant flagrantly just didn't care as long as he got his way ...," Carney said.

Defense attorney Donald Re countered that Becker and his fiancee were sleeping inside the house at the time, demonstrating his lack of knowledge of any potential danger.

He called his client a "highly respected" and "very good, decent man" who has been living away from his family for two years.

"I understand there are people here who are hurt," Becker's lawyer said. "He has accepted responsibility for his part. He is being punished ... He will live with this forever."

He said a "substantial settlement" was reached with the victim's family and paid by an insurance company.

During a preliminary hearing in November 2012 in which Becker was ordered to stand trial, Re questioned the credibility of a city building inspector whose testimony came under attack.

Before imposing the sentence, Perry questioned whether inspections by the Building and Safety Department should have discovered if there were problems with the construction before the fire.

"Building and Safety doesn't build this building," the prosecutor responded. He told the judge that any issues involving the inspections do not mitigate the "negligence" of Becker, who he said has lengthy experience as an architect in Spain.

"Frankly, your honor, I want to throw the book at the defendant," Carney said.

The Los Angeles Fire Department issued a statement after the sentencing, saying that "building codes and fire codes are written for public safety and for the safety of firefighters. Today's guilty verdict ... should send a clear message and warning to those who try to circumvent those codes."

Retired LAFD Capt. Kevin Mulvehill, who was among those who battled the blaze, told reporters "we're deeply disappointed in the outcome based on the information that was given to us."

He said firefighters are still working today with injuries and post- traumatic stress disorder suffered as a result of the fire, with what happened weighing on them on a daily basis. Mulvehill also said he was upset that firefighters were not allowed to speak at the hearing, with the judge restricting comments to immediate family members of the victim.

Al Sanchez January 03, 2014 at 08:53 PM
THERE ARE A LOT OF THINGS THAT WOULD BE CONSIDERED VERY "CHEAP" THAT BUILDERS HIDE AND DO TO HOMES. IT DOESN'T MEAN THAT THE ARE BAD PEOPLE. THEY ARE JUST CUTTING CORNERS. THIS WAS COMPLETELY UNINTENTIONAL, STUPID, BUT UNINTENTIONAL. NOW, IF THE FIREFIGHTER DIDN'T DIE AND NO ONE WAS HURT, THE LAW WOULD NOT HAVE CARED A BIT. THAT JUST SHOWS YOU THAT IT WAS JUST BECAUSE THE FIREFIGHTER DIED, AND ONLY THAT. AGAIN, IF WE LOOKED AT ALL THE CHEAP WORK AND STUFF DONE TO ALL HOUSES, INCLUDING OUR OWN, WE WOULD BE PRETTY SHOCKED.
Scott Zwartz January 04, 2014 at 08:47 PM
Of course, the DA should have investigate Building and Safety. An investigation does not mean it did anything wrong. Some contractors make changes after inspectors leave. The shortage of funds at City Hall is another reason the DA should look towards officials. If we find that public revenues are going to the political cronies of the councilmembers and the mayor and not to city government, that diversion of funds can touch off the chain of causation that causes injuries and death. Without adequate funding, inspectors are over worked and can miss vital matters due to lack of time. In June 2013, the County Grand jury found that the intentional defunding of the paramedics and firefighters caused needless deaths. We should look at all factors which may have substantially caused this death including politicos diverting funds away from vital services and to their buddies.

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