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Firefighter's death: Expert to testify in hearing for architect

November 27, 2012 | 11:26 am

Gerhard Becker

A safety expert is expected to testify Tuesday in a hearing for an architect accused of negligently installing outdoor fireplaces in his Hollywood Hills mansion, a decision prosecutors say ultimately led to a veteran firefighter's death.

In February, prosecutors charged Gerhard Becker, 48, with one count of involuntary manslaughter, alleging he knowingly ignored safety recommendations and altered the house after inspections.

Authorities said Becker seemed to worry more about ensuring the luxury home sparkled for an upcoming filming of “Germany’s Next Top Model” than guaranteeing the mansion—with sweeping views and an infinity pool--was safe to occupy.

"This man built an 18-foot fire trough designed for outdoors inside the home. It was a recipe for disaster," Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney said in February.

Dale Feb, a prosecution witness and fireplace consultant, is expected to testify at the preliminary hearing about the safety of the home at the time it burned.

Becker, a German national, has pleaded not guilty. If the judge orders Becker to stand trial and he is convicted, he faces a four-year prison term.

More than 80 firefighters rushed to the burning home on North Viewsite Drive the night of February 16, 2011; 19 became temporarily trapped as the conflagration spread. The fire erupted from a third-floor fireplace, shooting upward as flames ate away at wood framing and supports holding up the ceiling.

When the ceiling collapsed, several hundred pounds of plaster and lumber crashed onto firefighter Glenn Allen, a nearly 40-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department. His colleagues used chainsaws to dig him out. Allen died two days later. He had talked about retirement and was awaiting the birth of his first grandchild.

A deputy building inspector told an LAPD detective that Becker had been "hands on" when it came to the home’s construction, "very demanding and often trying to perform work on the foundation for the residence faster than allowable,” according to a search warrant affidavit.

Building inspectors said Becker informed them he had no plans to include indoor fireplaces in the elaborate mansion, and none were found during a final inspection. But after the fire, inspectors discovered Becker had installed four outdoor fireplaces inside the Hollywood Hills home, violating city building codes.

The fireplaces lacked required firebreaks to stop flames from spreading out and were constructed with combustible materials, the search warrant affidavit says.

"If these fireplaces were present at final inspection of the residence, the inspection would not have been approved," the search warrant affidavit by LAPD Det. Gregory M. Stearns states. "As constructed and installed, they constitute a present, extreme, immediate and imminent hazard."

After Allen's death, Becker told investigators he saw the pits not as fireplaces, but “architectural features or decorations," according to the search warrant affidavit.

The manufacturer of the fireplaces warned Becker that they were for outdoor use only, according to the search warrant affidavit.

Becker, according to the document, replied in an email: "I am aware. I just don't see the difference. It is a pit with a pipe.”

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-- Andrew Khouri at L.A. County Superior Court

Photo: Gerhard Becker. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times.

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