When firefighters arrived at the $11-million mansion in the Hollywood Hills last year, they thought they had a chance to save the 13,500-square-foot structure.
More than 80 firefighters raced to the home, and 19 were temporarily trapped as the fire spread. Veteran firefighter Glenn Allen was on the ground floor when several hundred pounds of plaster and lumber fell on him. His colleagues dug him out using chainsaws to cut through the debris, but his injuries were so severe that he died two days later.
From the beginning, investigators were suspicious of how the fire started.
After a yearlong investigation, prosecutors on Wednesday charged the home’s architect with involuntary manslaughter for allegedly building a home that was the perfect backdrop for a reality TV show but a deathtrap for the firefighters who tried to save it.
Authorities said the Feb. 16, 2011, fire occurred two days before filming was set to begin at the home for “Germany’s Next Top Model.” The show starred Heidi Klum and centered around a group of models staying at the home, with its sweeping views, dramatic terraces and infinity pool.
Prosecutors said Gerhard Albert Becker, 48, knowingly ignored safety recommendations and altered the home after inspections. He has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with Allen’s death.
Building inspectors said Becker had told them there were no plans to build fireplaces in the home, and none were spotted during a final inspection. After the fire, investigators discovered that he had installed four outdoor fireplaces inside the home, a violation of city building codes.
Becker has pleaded not guilty. Last year, he told investigators after Allen’s death that “he did not consider them to be fireplaces but rather architectural features or decorations,” according to court records.
“This man built an 18-foot fire trough designed for outdoors inside the home. It was a recipe for disaster,” added Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney. “He essentially put this fireplace on 2-by-4s.”
According to a search warrant affidavit, the manufacturer of the fireplaces warned Becker that they were for outdoor use only. Records show he replied in an email, “I am aware I just don’t see the difference. It is a pit with a pipe.”
Authorities said the Becker seemed more concerned with making the house look good for the TV show than making sure the structure was safe to occupy.
One of the fireplaces, prosecutors allege, actually vented into the room where it was located. The fireplaces also included combustible materials, like drywall, and lacked required firebreaks to keep flames from spreading out.
The deadly fire broke out from a fireplace on the third floor, racing upward and through the mansion’s attic, eating away at wood framing and supports holding up the ceiling.
“If these fireplaces were present at final inspection of the residence, the inspection would not have been approved,” a search warrant affidavit by LAPD Det. Gregory M. Stearns states. “As constructed and installed, they constitute a present, extreme, immediate and imminent hazard.”
Becker was interviewed by fire investigators, but two months after they last spoke to him, he broke the lease on his home, sold two vehicles and flew to Switzerland and then Spain, where he began to build another luxury home. There he set up construction companies in the name of his wife, a yoga instructor, investigators said.
The charges against Becker come after a more than yearlong investigation by the Los Angeles police and fire departments and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
According to the search warrant affidavit, a deputy building inspector told an LAPD detective that Becker had been “hands on” when it came to construction of the home, “very demanding and often trying to perform work on the foundation for the residence faster than allowable.”
Another building inspector described Becker as argumentative, insisting that in Germany “the architect is in charge and decides when things are signed off.” More than once, the inspector said Becker called his supervisor in an unsuccessful effort to have the inspector’s decisions overturned.
Becker was arrested Saturday when he flew into Los Angeles International Airport from Spain. Prosecutors said they believe he planned to stay just long enough to sever any remaining financial ties to L.A. and the United States.
Becker was trying to settle a civil lawsuit that would let him sell the Hollywood Hills mansion. Prosecutors consider him a flight risk, noting that he faces up to four years in prison and that Becker’s financial worth is considerable. On Wednesday, a judge set his bail at $2 million.
During a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised the fallen firefighter.
“It was almost one year ago to this very day we lost a hero, a firefighter who answered the call … a firefighter who saved lives, Glenn Allen,” he said.
Allen was expecting his first grandchild within days of his death and planned to retire in less than two years.