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Architect Jailed in Fireman’s Death

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

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A German architect who designed and oversaw construction of a luxury residence where a veteran Los Angeles firefighter died in a 2011 blaze has been sentenced to one year in jail after pleading no contest to involuntary manslaughter.

Prosecutors say Gerhard Albert Becker, 49, ignored building codes and the manufacturer’s warnings when he installed four fireplaces meant for outdoor use in his Hollywood Hills home.

The design decision ultimately led to the death of firefighter Glenn Allen, 61, authorities say.

Glenn Allen
Los Angeles Fire Department

Glenn Allen, 61, a firefighter for 36 years, was crushed when a ceiling collapsed during the fire.

Allen, a 36-year firefighter, was crushed when a burning ceiling fell on him after firefighters responded to an alarm Feb. 16, 2011, at Becker's home. Allen died two days later from his injuries.

Becker pleaded no contest Friday (Jan. 3) to one count of involuntary manslaughter before Superior Judge Robert Perry, according to an announcement by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Inspector to Share Blame?

Under the plea arrangement, the judge sentenced Becker to one year in county jail and three years of probation.

The architect had faced a maximum sentence of four years behind bars on the charge. However, he will likely spend only half a year in jail due to time served and other factors, reports said.

In imposing sentence, Perry reportedly reasoned that a city building inspector, Brad Bascos, who signed off on the project after construction, could share the responsibility in Allen’s death.

Perry further believed the role of Bascos would have led to a hung jury in a trial, reports said.

At a preliminary hearing in December 2012, Bascos testified that he had never seen the fireplaces during his inspection. He said the fireplaces had been installed in violation of building codes after his inspection, reports relate.

‘Low Sentence’ Hammered

Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney, who prosecuted the case, criticized what he called a “low sentence.”

“It is a sentence that undermines any deterrent effect—that says they can blame it on city bureaucracy’s negligence,” Carney told reporters.

He said Becker, not Building & Safety, was responsible for building the multi-level home.

Carney also argued that because the architect is a German national who will be deported immediately after he serves his jail sentence, there will be no way to monitor his time on probation.

Allen’s widow, Melanie Allen, told Perry that their lives had been “ripped to shreds” when her husband was killed in the blaze.

The Fatal Blaze

The fire at the mansion began in a top-floor fireplace and raged through the 12,000 square-foot home in the early-morning hours of Feb. 11, reports said. The architect, who had recently been issued a certificate of occupancy, was sleeping in the home when the fire broke out.

CBS Los Angeles

The architect decided to install fireplaces meant for outdoor use in the home. A fire in one spread through the home and led to a firefighter's death.

Allen had been one of 80 firefighters who responded to the call that morning. Authorities said chainsaws had been used to free Allen from the hundreds of pounds of drywall and lumber.

Five other firefighters suffered injuries, reports said.

Outdoor Use Only

After the fire, four outdoor-use fireplaces were discovered indoors. They were also said to have been framed with combustible materials, and firebreaks were not installed inside the walls.

Carney alleged that when the mansion was being reconstructed, Becker sent an email to the contractor, ordering him to install similar fireplaces.

“Not only did he construct a fireplace that killed Glenn Allen,” Carney reportedly said. “He wanted to do it again.”

Attorney’s Response

Becker’s attorney, Donald Re, said that the architect surrendered Dec. 19 in anticipation of his sentence and that Becker had arranged for his insurer to reach a substantial settlement with the Allen family, The Associated Press reported. The settlement has been paid, Re said.

“He will live with this forever on his soul,” Re said of Becker. “He is a good and decent man.”

Becker sold the reconstructed home in 2012 for $7.5 million, reports said.

Editor's Note (3:37 p.m. ET Jan. 7, 2013): Although authorities describe Becker as an architect, the California Architects Board does not list him as a licensed architect in the state of California.


Tagged categories: Architects; Building codes; Color + Design; Construction; Design; Fatalities; Fire; Health and safety; Laws and litigation

Comment from Rough Designs, (1/7/2014, 8:19 PM)

Wow, In California you can build a 12,000 sf McMansion without a State licensed architect! So the article should be titled "Contractor gets a year in jail". What's the distinction? A GC declares bankruptcy and legally escapes all responsibility (apparently this guy was too dumb or cheap to bother incorporating to take advantage of this). A licensed professional is on the hook personally, usually forever, especially in 3rd party injury, such as the fire fighter. Now I'm not saying all architects are great and all knowing, but most know when they are in over their heads, and that fear of consequences makes them hire engineers and others that do know what they are doing. As to settlement, start with the 7.5 million he made on the fixed up Mc Mansion. You make the guilty, GC, sub, worker, developer, etc. loose everything they make, everything they have, that kind of fear of consequences might make sure they hire competent architects and engineers, and not wing it to save a buck, do what they feel like, enjoy the ego trip of being a big shot whatever, etc..

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