Architect pleads not guilty in LA fireman's death

February 16, 2012 - 5:25 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Authorities charge that the sprawling home a German architect designed and built was shoddily put together, contributing to the death of a firefighter who died when a water-saturated ceiling collapsed on him during a fire.

Gerhard Albert Becker, 48, who also owned the mansion and was the construction contractor, pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Authorities allege that the shoddy way the home was built, including putting a fireplace on the third floor that was designed only for outside use, caused the blaze.

"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.

Becker 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.

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.

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.