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Architect pleads no contest in LA fireman death

January 3, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A German architect pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter Friday in the death of a Los Angeles firefighter crushed in the collapse of a ceiling during a fire at a luxury home the architect designed and built in the Hollywood Hills.

Gerhard Albert Becker, 49, was sentenced to three years of probation and a year in county jail. However, a prosecutor said Becker will serve only about four months in custody with credit for time served.

About a dozen firefighters who were present when their colleague Glen Allen was fatally injured were in the courtroom. Their retired captain, Kevin Mulvehill, told reporters they still suffer from injuries and post-traumatic stress from the fire. He wept as he recalled being unable to save Allen.

Allen’s widow and sister described in court the toll the tragedy has taken on their family.

Prosecutor Sean Carney told Superior Court Judge Robert Perry he was “deeply disappointed” with the sentence arrived at by the judge.

Perry said he was concerned there might be shared culpability for the fire with a building inspector who failed to detect improperly installed fireplaces in the mansion.

Carney said the defendant hid the presence of four outdoor fireplaces installed indoors in violation of manufacturers’ instructions.

“Frankly, I want to throw the book at the defendant,” Carney told the judge. “His conduct was so outrageous.”

He had asked for a sentence of four years with Becker serving half of that.

Perry said the fire was clearly unintentional and noted that Becker and his girlfriend were asleep in the house when it caught fire.

During the Feb. 16, 2011, fire at the mansion, water from a melted pipe filled a false ceiling until it collapsed on 61-year-old firefighter Glenn Allen, who died two days later. Five other people were injured.

Becker, a well-known architect in Europe who was working on his first U.S. project and was also the owner and construction contractor on the home, had been awaiting trial when his lawyer notified the court that he planned to plead no contest, the equivalent of a guilty plea.

Becker surrendered Dec. 19 to begin serving his time. His lawyer, Donald Re, said he had arranged for his insurer to reach a substantial settlement with the Allen family that has already been paid.

“He will live with this forever on his soul,” Re said of the defendant. “He is a good and decent man.”

Superior court Judge Michael Tynan, who presided over Becker’s preliminary hearing, concluded, he “acted recklessly and with gross negligence,” engaging in deliberate deception and intending to evade building codes.

The fire began in the top-floor fireplace shortly after a certificate of occupancy had been issued, investigators said. As the fire raged through the 12,000 square-foot house, a plastic sprinkler pipe melted, filling the false ceiling made of drywall and wood with water and causing it to collapse and crush the veteran firefighter as he was fighting the flames. Chainsaws had to be used to free him from the debris.

Los Angeles city building inspector Brad Bascos said at the preliminary hearing that, after the fire, he discovered four fireplaces that had been installed in violation of building codes. Bascos testified that Becker never mentioned fireplaces during construction and he did not see them during inspections before the fire. Bascos said he never would have approved them.

The home was to have been the location of a photo shoot for the reality TV show “Germany’s Next Top Model” just two days after the fire.

Carney noted that when the house was being reconstructed, Becker gave orders for the same fireplaces to be installed after the building inspection was completed.

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