An architect charged with the death of a firefighter for allegedly installing a faulty gas fireplace that started a lethal blaze in his home has pleaded not guilty to a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Gerhard Becker, 48, appeared in court Wednesday to enter his plea. He was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Saturday when he arrived from his current home in Spain.
Authorities believe that Becker was coming to sever his last ties to the country and anticipated he would flee the country if he was not taken into custody.
The fire at Becker's $11 million home in the Hollywood Hills happened a year ago, on Feb. 16, 2011. More than 80 firefighters responded to his home where 19 firefighters were temporarily trapped. Three were injured and firefighter Glenn Allen, 61, died two days after the blaze as a result of injuries sustained while battling the fire.
Allen, a 34-year veteran firefighter, "was crushed to death by the ceiling which collapsed as a result of the fire started by the fireplaces installed by the defendant," according to court documents.
Becker is "charged with the involuntary manslaughter of a firefighter who was killed as a result of the defendant's grossly negligent decision to install outdoor fireplaces inside of his home without any safeguards in place to prevent fire or to contain fire," according to court documents.
Authorities took out a search warrant on Becker's email and discovered that someone from the fireplace manufacturing company warned Becker that the units were for outdoor use only.
"I am aware. I just don't see the difference," Becker responded in an email. "I[t] is a pit with a pipe. I am aware that I have to cover around the pit with Fire restraint materials, and in the worst cast [sic] my building inspector will ask for a vent."
A Los Angeles Fire Department investigation determined that "the cause of the fire was accidental and that the area of origin was in the area of the ignition box for a fireplace on the third floor of the residence."
The fire burned upward and horizontally, destroying the house's wooden framing structure and support system, causing it to collapse.
"The fire started as a result of gross negligence of construction of the fireplace at the third floor, which led to the collapse of the ceiling," LAPD Chief Charlie beck said at a news conference.
Inspection records show that Becker said he was not planning on having any fireplaces in the house, but that he added four after the house were complete and allegedly ignored safety regulations.
"After representing to the Department of Building and Safety that he intended to install no fireplaces within the home, the defendant personally installed four outdoor fireplaces inside the home all four of which, when lit, began to burn the wood surrounding the burners," LAPD Det. Gregory Stearns wrote in a police report.
Becker also had a contract with Tressor Entertainment for the exclusive use of his home for filming the show "Germany's Next Top Model," hosted by Heidi Klum. Filming was scheduled to begin two days after the deadly fire occurred.
He allegedly chose not to install required "firebreaks" that would have prevented potential fires from spreading.
Becker is a German national who has been living in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and his financial records indicate that he has "cash assets totaling several million dollars and owns luxury properties in both Germany and Spain," according to court documents.
In April 2011, after his second police interview, Becker broke his residential lease, sold his two cars and fled to Switzerland and Spain where he began constructing a luxury home and founded a new company under the name of his yoga instructor wife.
Becker's only remaining tie to L.A. was the house that had to be repaired after the fire. Construction on the home was recently completed and Becker's realtor had located a potential buyer. Authorities believe that Becker was returning to the U.S. on Feb. 11 to sever his last tie with L.A. and the country.
Becker's attorney Chad Lewin did not respond to requests for comment.
If convicted of involuntary manslaughter, Becker faces four years in prison. He is being held on a $2 million bail and is scheduled to be back in court on March 1 for a preliminary hearing.