German architect gets one-year sentence in death of L.A. firefighter

Gerhard Becker, left, talks to arson investigator William Thost.
Gerhard Becker, left, talks to arson investigator William Thost.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A German architect accused of recklessly installing a fireplace in his Hollywood Hills mansion, leading to a firefighter’s death in February 2011, is expected to serve about six months in jail after pleading no contest Friday to involuntary manslaughter.

Gerhard Becker, 49, was sentenced to one year in jail as a condition of his probation, but will probably spend only about half of that behind bars due to time already served and other factors.

Prosecutors had sought four years in jail.

“The problem with probation in this case is that it sends a message you can blame somebody else and escape,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney said outside the courtroom.


Prosecutors allege 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 authorities say he did 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. Authorities determined after the fire that Becker had built long fire pits meant for outdoor use into his home.

Firefighter Glenn Allen died fighting the blaze.

Relatives Allen and nearly 200 other people had sent letters to Los Angeles County Superior Judge Robert Perry urging him to order the maximum sentence.

“We want to send a message, ‘Build stuff right and don’t cut corners,’” said Frank Lima, president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City union.

Becker was 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.

The fire had rocketed up to the attic. The ceiling eventually collapsed, crushing three firefighters, including Allen, who later died at a hospital due to lack of oxygen to his brain while he was pinned down.


At Friday’s hearing, the judge struggled with deciding how much responsibility to place on Becker’s shoulders after he said in court that city inspectors should have done a better job of following up on the house.

Becker later the sold the house for $7.55 million and used proceeds from the sale to post $2 million bail. But he surrendered to authorities nearly three weeks ago in anticipation of the sentencing.

Becker also expects to be deported to Europe upon being released because he’s in the U.S. on an expired visa, his attorney said in court.


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