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Anger over architect's plea deal in firefighter's death

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The manslaughter case against German architect Gerhard Becker was novel from the start.

Los Angeles prosecutors charged that Becker built a Hollywood Hills West mansion with such disregard for public safety and building codes that he should be held criminally liable for the death of a Los Angeles firefighter who was crushed by 1,000 pounds of ceiling while battling a blaze there in 2011.

Becker, 49, was set to go on trial for involuntary manslaughter and faced up to four years in jail. But on Friday, the case came to an abrupt end with a judge agreeing to a deal that will keep the architect in jail for six months in exchange for a no contest plea.

Prosecutors, the victim’s family and firefighters opposed the resolution, saying Becker deserved more punishment. About 15 uniformed firefighters attended the court hearing Friday to lend their support. More than 400 firefighters submitted letters to the court.

In offering the deal, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry questioned the strength of the prosecution’s case. He suggested that a Los Angeles building and safety inspector who reviewed Becker’s home may share some of the blame.

The inspector, Brad Bescos, signed off on the house three months before the fire, according to court records. During an interview with investigators and then in testimony at a preliminary hearing in 2012, Bescos offered conflicting accounts about whether he saw some of the building code violations or whether Becker might have hid them. The confusion damaged his credibility in the eyes of the judge.

“There are serious issues of proof for responsibility of the loss of life,” Perry said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney had offered Becker a plea deal of two years in jail. He criticized the judge’s offer Friday, saying it missed an opportunity to send a stronger message to architects considering skirting rules.

“It is a sentence that undermines any deterrent effect – that says they can blame it on city bureaucracy’s negligence,” Carney said outside the courtroom, flanked by firefighters.

“I don't think six months in jail is worth what all these guys went through,” retired firefighter Kevin Mulvehill told reporters. “Everyone who responded has a life sentence.”

After 11 years of designing massive villas on a Spanish island, Becker had set his sights on a new challenge: a lot on Viewsite Terrace straddling a hillside a mile up from West Hollywood’s ritzy Sunset Plaza.

He bought the land for $905,000 in 2009 and then began designing and overseeing the $4-million construction of what was to be his 12,000-square-foot home. He was not licensed by the California Architects Board.

The living room, kitchen, garage and deck would sit at street level and two other floors would drop behind the cliff, offering unfettered views of the Los Angeles Basin.

An infinity pool, floor-to-ceiling windows, a maid’s room, nine bathrooms and six bedrooms were built on the palm-tree-lined property.

The producers of a German reality TV show hosted by Heidi Klum paid $100,000 to use the home for two months.

Disregarding the manufacturer’s safety warnings in favor of aesthetics, Becker placed a long, natural-gas fire trough into a recessed wall of the mansion’s living room, prosecutors alleged.

The pebble-filled fire pit came with a notice that it could lead to loss of life if installed anywhere but outdoors. It sat along an alcove that was 15 feet long, 18 inches high and 18 inches above the floor. Flames rose just 2 inches from the top.

The fire pit had been in operation the night of the blaze, but authorities couldn’t determine whether it had been turned off before the ignition box below led to the larger blaze.

Becker surrounded the fireplace -- and three similar ones in the home -- with wood and drywall instead of non-flammable materials. Each unit cost $6,000 installed, according to court files. Authorities said that had it been done properly, the price would have been 10 times more.

“No reasonable person would build a fireplace out of wood, because what happens is the obvious result, the wood catches fire,” Carney said.

A vent that should have been angled upward was flat and just 4 inches wide, prosecutors said. And without any fire-stop materials inside the walls impeding the flames, the fire surged to the attic.

The ceiling collapsed about 45 minutes after the 911 call. A firefighter said in court that he had never seen anything like this. If built to code, the attic should have been free of flames for at least the first hour, authorities said.

“What we rely on as a community is the good faith of the persons who are actually responsible for the construction,” Carney said during a preliminary hearing.

“What [Becker] put forward was contempt and arrogance for any safety standards he didn’t agree with.”

One firefighter suffered a broken ankle and another a broken leg. A third, Glenn Allen, a 61-year-old with nearly 37 years of service in the Los Angeles Fire Department, eventually died, unable to get enough oxygen. He missed the birth of his first grandchild by a day.

His wife, Melanie, said Friday that her daughter’s two sons have missed out on learning how to use Allen’s fire tools. “My life has been ripped to shreds,” she said.

Carney told the court that Becker would lug around the building code book, nit-picking with contractors, inspectors and even their bosses to ensure every detail worked out his way. He pulled out fire sprinklers, a pool alarm and staircase railings after inspections, prosecutors alleged.

“The defendant flagrantly didn’t care as long as he got his way, whether or not building and safety approved it, because that was the way he was apparently used to in Europe,” Carney said Friday as he tried to persuade the judge to offer a stronger sentence.

He told the judge that any fault placed on the city inspector should not detract from Becker’s callous code violations.

Becker’s attorney, Donald Re, argued that Becker never would have moved in if he had felt unsafe. In a civil lawsuit filed Melanie Allen, Re said Becker reached a “substantial” settlement to transfer his insurance reimbursement to her family.

“There will be no winner in this case, but this will be on his soul forever,” Re said.

Judge Perry called the deal a sign of remorse. He speculated that the city inspector shouldn’t have missed Becker’s violations and worried about a hung jury if the case went to trial.

He previously signaled that he would offer a one-year plea deal, and Becker surrendered to authorities the week before Christmas.

Because of time already served and other factors, he’s likely to be released from jail by May. Because his visa has expired, he will deported to Europe after release.

Becker cried Friday when his attorney talked about how the German national would finally be able to return to his fiance, daughter and ailing father.

He sold the red wood-paneled mansion, which was repaired after the fire, last June for $7.55 million, using sale proceeds to post $2-million bail at the time, according to court records. The new owner is renovating it again in anticipation of a sale, real estate agent Jason Oppenheim said.

Allen was the 61st city firefighter to have died in the line of the duty in the department's first 125 years. Legal experts said criminal prosecution, let alone conviction, in a case of shoddy design and construction is rare despite the thousands of injuries each year that might be traced to builders cutting corners.

“With this plea, there will be greater pressure on prosecutors to charge the architect,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor. “Tragedies are often followed by demands for prosecution, and those demands are likely to be tied to this case as precedent.”

paresh.dave@latimes.com

Times staff writer Andrew Khouri contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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