Architect pleads not guilty in LA fireman's death

February 15, 2012 - 10:35 PM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A German architect who designed and built a sprawling mansion in the Hollywood Hills pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter Wednesday for the death of a firefighter who was killed when a water-saturated ceiling collapsed on him as he was fighting a blaze.

Gerhard Albert Becker, who also owned the home, entered his plea in Los Angeles County Superior Court. He was jailed on $2 million bail and ordered to return to court March 1 for a preliminary hearing. His attorney, Chad Lewin did not immediately return a message left for comment.

Becker, 48, was also the home's construction contractor, and authorities say the shoddy way he put it together, including putting a fireplace on the third floor that was designed only for outside use, caused the fire.

"The fire started as the result of gross negligence," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said. Beck also said he was not aware of any other case in which shoddy building work led to an involuntary manslaughter charge.

"It's certainly rare," he said.

As the blaze that began in the fireplace raged through the house, authorities said, it melted a plastic sprinkler pipe. That filled a false ceiling that was made of drywall and wood with water and caused it to collapse.

The ceiling gave way as firefighter Glenn Allen was fighting the flames. Chainsaws had to be used to free Allen from the debris, and he died two days later. Five other firefighters were injured.

Allen, 61, had been with the Los Angeles Fire Department nearly 40 years and was less than a year away from retirement. He was the first city firefighter to be killed in the line of duty since March 2008, when Brent Lovrien died in an explosion near Los Angeles International Airport as he investigated an earlier blast that blew manhole covers into the air.

Before the just-completed three-story home burned down on Feb. 16, 2011, it was to have been the location for a photo shoot for the reality TV show "Germany's Next Top Model."

Becker left the country soon after the fire, but authorities said there was no indication he was fleeing to avoid arrest. He is a German citizen and his 90-day visa was about to expire, Beck said.

He was arrested Saturday by FBI agents and authorities when he arrived in Los Angeles from Spain, where he also has a home.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the arrest should serve as a warning to others not to take shortcuts with building codes.

"The message for all of us today is very clear. Public safety is everybody's responsibility," Villaraigosa said. "Following our city's fire codes ensures your safety and the safety of first responders like Glenn Allen."