The owner of a converted, metal-clad barn in Sylmar that went up in flames in January, killing a family of four, was charged Friday with failing to install smoke detectors in the structure and illegally expanding its living quarters, prosecutors said.
Los Angeles firefighters who fought their way into the burning building on Eldridge Avenue found an unresponsive adult male a few feet from the front door, and his wife and two children huddled nearby. Fire investigators later reported that there were no smoke detectors on the ceilings or walls.
The property's owner, Leonarda Duenez Aguilar, was charged with six criminal misdemeanors, including failure to install smoke detectors, illegal use of land, illegal construction, lack of electrical and plumbing permits and failure to comply with orders from the Department of Building and Safety, according to the L.A. city attorney's office. Killed in the Jan. 13 blaze were Uriel Estrada, 41; his wife, Maria Estrada, 40; and their children -- Isabel, 12, and Alejandro, 7.
"This tragedy is a stark reminder that installing and maintaining smoke detectors can make the difference between life and death," L.A. City Atty. Mike Feuer said after his office filed the charges. Aguilar is due in court July 2. Each count could bring up to six months in jail plus a $1,000 fine.
Investigators believe the fire started in the home's living-dining area, adjacent to where the 12-year-old girl was sleeping, on the first floor. The fire spread quickly and became concentrated on the second story of the building, which was not used as living space, officials said. Smoke and flames alerted witnesses, who called 911 about 4:30 a.m.
L.A. city prosecutors said a portion of the barn structure was a legal living space but that it was illegally expanded when a bathroom and kitchen were added without a permit.
City records indicate that the owner was authorized to convert the barn into a living space. However, the property's permits do not allow for it to include a kitchen or be used as permanent residential housing for longer than 30 days, according to Luke Zamperini, a spokesman for the Department of Building and Safety.
In the aftermath of the fire, city fire investigators reported that they found a kitchen area with a stove, refrigerator and sink.
Brian Weinberger, Aguilar's attorney, adamantly denied any wrongdoing by his client, saying the first he knew of the charges was when a reporter called him Friday: "This comes as quite a bit of a shock.... I was still waiting to get the fire marshal report I had requested."
"Everything will come out in court," he said. "The deceased were provided with smoke detectors. Just because smoke detectors could not be found in the residue of a hot blaze doesn't mean they weren't there."
Weinberger added, "there is no evidence that smoke detectors going off would have made any difference."
The building is one of two structures on the two-acre lot. Weinberger also has denied that Aguilar made any "substantial changes or [did] any construction" on the property after purchasing it.