Climbing ladders and crawling through dusty ceiling spaces, officials investigating a contractor accused of rigging dummy fire sprinklers are seeking more sabotaged systems they call "ticking time bombs."
Fire marshals are checking more than 500 sites across Northern California where Dennis Frye worked over the last 10 years, examining thousands of sprinklers individually.
"Cities nationwide are going to feel the effects of this," said Monterey Assistant City Atty. William Conners. "The fact that this guy was beating the inspection system for so long was absolutely phenomenal."
11 Systems Found
So far, 11 unconnected or plugged systems have been found at such institutions as the York School chapel in rural Salinas and Community Hospital in Monterey.
Water lines to the private York School were rigged to fool fire inspectors into believing there was water pressure in the sprinkler system, according to Monterey Fire Prevention Manager Steve Hart.
"There is overwhelming evidence that Mr. Frye installed these systems," said Larry McNeely, chief investigator for the Contractors State License Board in Sacramento.
"He has refused to cooperate in any way, but I would like to plead with him from one human being to another to tell us where these phony fire sprinklers are. We consider these to be almost ticking time bombs," McNeely said.
Frye is also under investigation by federal, state, county and local authorities for links to more than a dozen arson fires, McNeely said, and has been named defendant in at least 14 civil suits involving millions of dollars in Sacramento and Monterey counties since 1982.
Authorities say the Frye case has exposed weaknesses in inspection procedures, which usually call only for testing water pressure. He is alleged to have nailed or glued bogus sprinkler heads to ceilings while diverting pipes.
Of the 5,200 sprinkler heads checked in nearby Pacific Grove, only one was found sabotaged, in a motel where Frye installed the system, said city Fire Chief Charles Wilkins.
"Most towns can't afford to test every head," he said. "They're hoping to cut back on fire departments by installing more sprinkler systems."
The Frye case already is spurring state legislation that would impose criminal penalties for not connecting sprinkler heads to working water pipes.
Meanwhile, the investigation of Frye, 40, is expanding rapidly. The Monterey Fire Department's file is more than six inches thick.
Frye was one of the largest fire protection contractors in Northern California before the board revoked his license last month.
On a 1984 bank loan application he claimed a net worth of $6.4 million, including a $25,000 Excalibur car, license plate "A CAPONE." A federal investigator said Frye owns a bank in the Marshall Islands.
On March 7, he was charged by Monterey County with eight counts of grand theft of service in connection with phony sprinklers and five other felonies.
He pleaded innocent to all charges, was freed on $10,000 bail, and ran from the courthouse, bowling over a news photographer on the way.
Authorities say Frye's motive in allegedly tampering with the sprinklers in most cases was not to save money by cutting corners, but rather a desire to "get even" with contractors or architects who made last-minute changes in plans.
Investment in Time
"In some cases, what he did to incapacitate part of the system probably took more time and effort than doing it right," said Monterey Fire Chief Anthony Fink.
Frye has been under investigation for arson fires in Monterey since Feb. 24, 1978, when flames destroyed the Monterey Canning Co. building on Cannery Row. The blaze began five hours before a new sprinkler system he was installing was to have been put into operation.
Frye was not charged in the fire, which caused more than $2 million in damage and gutted 15 businesses.
In 1970, a department store in Fresno where Frye was project foreman for sprinklers burned to the ground just before it was to open. After a civil suit, the sprinkler firm for which he worked was found 80% liable for the $2.2-million blaze.
Fresno Fire Marshal Richard Bogardt said the sprinkler system was connected, but the water had been turned off.
Former Business Burns
On Oct. 30, 1984, an arson fire caused $200,000 in damage to the building housing Frye's former business, Advanced Automatic Fire Control Inc., on Monterey's Cannery Row, soon after the business was sold to three former employees.
The federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau investigated that blaze and turned it over to the U.S. attorney's office for possible prosecution.
"There were flammable liquids in three places," said Al Kupstas, one of the former employees who bought the firm.
Frye blames Kupstas and his partners, Jeff and Mike Roberts, for the numerous investigations of him.
"I know it is a vendetta," Frye told reporters before his arraignment. "They were afraid I'm going to come back to Monterey and take all their business away. They were afraid of me."