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Architect expected to plead guilty to causing firefighter's death

A German architect accused of improperly installing a fireplace in his Hollywood Hills mansion, leading to a firefighter’s death in February 2011, is expected to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter Friday.

Firefighters and prosecutors, though, are concerned that Los Angeles County Superior Judge Robert Perry may sentence Gerhard Becker, 49, to far less than the maximum possible sentence of four years in prison. Relatives of the fallen Los Angeles city firefighter, Glenn Allen, and nearly 200 other people recently sent letters to Perry urging him to order the maximum sentence, officials said.

“We want to send a message, ‘Build stuff right and don’t cut corners,'” said Frank Lima, union president for United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. “The judge has two options in front of him -- one is a light one and one is a heavier one -- and we are hoping he goes with the heavier one.”

Prosecutors allege that Becker told a city building inspector that he didn’t plan to build any fireplaces in his three-story, 12,000-square-foot hillside house. But he’s accused of doing so anyway after the final inspection in November 2010.

Days after Becker was permitted to move in, a fire awoke him and his girlfriend at night. After the fire, authorities determined that Becker built long, natural-gas fire pits meant for outdoor use into the interior of his home. He’s accused of gross negligence for building the frame of the fireplaces with combustible materials, instead of materials such as brick, and for not building any firebreaks inside the walls.

Unchecked by firebreaks, the flames rocketed up to the attic. The ceiling eventually collapsed, crushing three firefighters, including Allen. He later died due to a lack of oxygen to his brain while he was pinned down.

Allen’s widow, Melanie, and several firefighters are expected to attend Friday’s hearing.

Becker later the sold the house for $7.55 million and used sale proceeds to post $2 million bail. But nearly three weeks ago, he surrendered to authorities in anticipation of sentencing. The judge has said that Becker could be free to return to Europe after being released.

Becker’s attorney, Donald Re, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

After being ordered in November 2012 to stand trial, Becker pleaded not guilty. His attorney has argued Becker would have never stayed in the house had he felt unsafe in it.

Prosecuting architects for shoddy designs is rare.

"This type of improvisation and casual design is a relic of the past," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.

But he said the plea could spur greater criminalization of misconduct.

"Tragedies are often followed by demands for prosecution and those demands are likely to be tied to this case as precedent," Turley said. "In that way, this could be an example of a hard case making bad law for architects in the future."

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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