Architect Gerhard Becker Faces Manslaughter Charges After a Firefighter Died Trying to Save His Home
Edward Watters could smell the fire before he saw it. It was after 11 p.m. as Watters maneuvered his engine up Sunset Plaza Drive, a narrow, twisting road that leads up into the Hollywood Hills. Only when the fire captain turned onto Viewsite Drive did he see the glow.
As he pulled alongside the house, he sized up the situation for his dispatcher: "A two-story, single-family dwelling. We've got fire showing on the outside of the structure."
The home was actually three stories — one at street level and two below, for a total of 12,500 square feet — but Watters couldn't tell that from the street. As firefighters began pouring water onto the redwood siding, Watters climbed a ladder and looked down at the patio. Through a sliding glass door, he could see into the living room: a big, empty, modern space with clean lines and high ceilings. There was no fire inside — only a wisp of smoke.
See also: Slideshow of Gerhard Becker's House
To him, that meant the fire was in the attic. The firefighters quickly extinguished the fire on the outside wall, but a lick of flame showed from the roofline.
Two firefighters climbed ladders to the roof. Working with chain saws, they began opening holes to ventilate the attic. As they did, flames appeared directly beneath them. Smoke billowed from the roof and clogged the chain saws' air filters, forcing the men to back off temporarily.
The homeowner, Gerhard Becker, had been asleep with his girlfriend in the bedroom on the lower level when they heard water gushing down the stairs. The sprinkler pipes had melted in the walls. They ran outside. Becker shut off the water supply, and they stood shivering on the street as the firefighters tried to save the house.
By that time, Watters and his crew were in the expansive living room. When Watters aimed his thermal-imaging camera at the ceiling, it turned red. He told his crew to start punching holes in the ceiling so they could locate the base of the fire and start hosing it down.
Experienced firefighters know that every minute counts: Flames weaken a structure the longer they burn. But punching the holes proved difficult. Their pike poles were 6 feet long, and the ceiling was almost 12 feet high. So the firemen were thrusting upward, wearing 50 pounds of gear, and barely reaching the ceiling. When they punched through the drywall, they encountered thick insulation. Watters told his men to stand on top of a low coffee table, which made it easier to reach — while he called for longer pike poles.
The dispatcher radioed that they had been on scene for 15 minutes.
As they began to direct water on the fire from below, Watters radioed to the captain on the roof to ask if they were making progress. "We've got no effect at all," he replied.
Inside, the firefighters punched a hole in the wall just above a recessed, 15-foot fireplace. They discovered an unusually large void behind it. The walls did not have the typical fire stops — two-by-fours or sections of plywood that would slow the progress of flame. Over the radio, Watters reported that the fire was "running between the walls."
A firefighter climbed inside the wall and started spraying water up toward the attic. At last, the crew on the roof reported that they were making headway: "You guys are starting to get it," the captain said.
Watters moved farther into the open room, aiming his thermal-imaging camera at the ceiling and directing his crew to punch more holes with the long pike poles.
The captain on the roof continued to see progress. Back by the patio door, though, he saw flame. "It is coming up a little," he radioed.
The dispatcher called out the time: "We have 30 minutes on the incident clock."
Inside, Watters went back to the patio door, where they had started to knock the fire down, and saw smoke coming from a sprinkler head. He punched a hole in the ceiling and saw more flame.
Then — a tremendous crash.
The next thing Watters realized, he was lying on his back, looking up at flames. He could not move. "Where are my firefighters?" he wondered. "Why aren't they here next to me? What's happening?"
It was eerily silent. A few feet away, another firefighter was also trapped. Glenn Allen, a department veteran of 36 years, had been standing on the coffee table. Now he was pinned in a seated position with his chest against his knees — and 1,000 pounds of wood, drywall and waterlogged insulation on his back.
"Roof collapse on the interior," the radio crackled. "Firefighters down."
A scramble ensued in order to see who was missing. Chain saws were brought in. The dispatcher assigned a newly arrived engine company to lead the rescue. But because the street was only wide enough for one engine, the rescuers had to jog a distance uphill to reach the scene.
Pinned under debris, Watters struggled to breathe. It took three firefighters to hoist a beam off his chest. As the weight lifted, Watters immediately realized that his right leg was broken.
Others kept searching for Allen. By the time he was pulled from the debris pile, he had been pinned against his knees for eight minutes. He was not breathing and had no pulse.
Allen died the following day.
A few days after that, the house was declared a crime scene. One year later, Becker, an architect who had overseen every detail of the home's construction, was arrested at LAX and charged with manslaughter.
The door to Gerhard Becker's house opens with a satisfying whoosh. As he walks inside, an electronic voice announces that the door is open. The house, which has been repaired since the fire, is on the market with an asking price of $11 million.
As Becker talks, in a thick German accent, he begins to jump up and down. In most houses, he says, the floor is made of wood. When you jump, the floor will bounce. This one does not. The reason? "It's made completely of concrete." The lower levels are also decked in concrete, at a cost of $300,000 per floor.
Becker moves to the sliding glass door to the balcony. On a clear day, the view stretches all the way to Newport Beach. He rolls it open, saying it is made of high-cost, energy-saving glass.
The police investigation pointed to the fireplace as the source of the blaze. Becker, who built the enclosure himself out of wood and combustible drywall, has been accused of cutting corners to save time and money.
The accusation is offensive to him.
"I wanted to do a very stable, a very good house," he says. "It just doesn't make sense to say I was trying to save money on a fireplace, when I am spending money on something nobody sees. Why should I do that if I'm trying to cheat on the code?"
In the late 19th and early 20th century, architects were often prosecuted for building collapses. In 1922, the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington, D.C., suffered a roof collapse after a heavy snowstorm, killing 98. The architect was indicted on manslaughter charges and later committed suicide. News archives from the era are full of similar cases.
But in modern times, they are exceedingly rare. In part, that is because construction standards are so much higher. In addition, when accidents do happen, it is usually the result of a compounding series of errors, which makes it hard to blame any one person.
In 2008, a crane collapsed in New York, killing seven. A contractor was charged with manslaughter, but he was acquitted after his attorney demonstrated that numerous factors led to the accident. The same year, New York prosecutors charged a building owner with manslaughter after a laborer was crushed in a trench collapse. His attorney argued that the owner did not foresee the danger, and he, too, was acquitted.
If Becker is convicted, he would be the first architect in many years to be found guilty of manslaughter in the U.S. The head legal counsel at the American Institute of Architects could not recall a similar case in the last 20 years.
Becker, 49, grew up in Saarbrücken, Germany, a small city on the border with France. His father was an architect, and he took to the trade at a young age. After studying in Berlin, he joined his father's firm. In his mid-30s, he moved to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. There, he set up a practice building luxury vacation homes, mostly in the classical Spanish style that his clients preferred.
As a younger man, he had visited Los Angeles, and was impressed by the city's vibrancy, as well as its modern homes. In the back of his mind, he dreamed of someday moving to L.A.
Becker got his chance when his daughter announced that she had been accepted to school in Tucson, where she intended to train to become a professional golfer.
"I wanted to be near to her, as a father, but not too near," he says.
In Mallorca, he had recently begun dating Susanne Kolb, whom he had met in a yoga class. She remembers he seemed completely committed to it. "Oh my God, he must be a yogi," she thought.
"He could put his whole passion into something," Kolb tells the Weekly via Skype from her home in Mallorca. "He realized things that other people are dreaming of ... When I met him, I got spinned around."
Kolb also had children from a previous relationship, and could not move to L.A. because she needed to be near their father. Though she did not see a future for the relationship, she came to stay with Becker as he built his house in the Hollywood Hills.
"He is a perfectionist in everything he is doing," she says. "He has lots of energy, and a brilliant mind."
He spent $1 million to buy a narrow strip of steep hillside on Viewsite Drive. A home had once sat on it, but it had been torn down after sustaining damage in the Northridge earthquake. Becker sized up the property and decided he could sculpt a 12,500-square-foot house on the side of the cliff, at a further cost of $4 million.
"I get this idea, and it just flows," he says. Leaning over the top floor balcony, he points out where the contours of the house match the hillside. "The exciting part is to see it happen — to see the project growing day by day."
Kolb is an artist and an interior designer. Together they designed the open floor plan.
"What he likes is space," Kolb says. "It's a very healthy surrounding for your mind — to be free and open."
See also: Slideshow of Gerhard Becker's House
Becker would meet his match in Brad Bescos, a Hollywood Hills building inspector. As much as Becker cared about freedom and openness, Bescos cared about handrails and code constraints. In 2010, Bescos was driving down Sunset Plaza Drive when he saw a cement truck turn up Viewsite Drive.
Bescos makes it his business to know when construction is going on in his domain, and no one had told him they would be pouring concrete that day. According to the rules, no one can pour pilings without a deputy engineer on site. When Bescos arrived, Becker didn't have one. Bescos shut the worksite down and sent the concrete trucks away.
It was the first of several clashes.
"He was resistant to my correction notices," Bescos would later testify. "He felt he didn't need our department there because when he had built before, he was in charge, and he made all the decisions."
Becker often complained to Bescos' boss to try to have his decisions overturned, without success. In other instances, Bescos would seek corrections and Becker would burrow into the building code, eventually inventing unique solutions to the inspector's concerns.
Sometimes Becker would comply initially — only to change things back after the inspection. He removed the mandatory outdoor sprinklers because he did not like the look. He took out a railing that he thought was unnecessary, and removed the pool alarm. He also built a full kitchen in the maid's quarters, when he was only allowed to build a sink.
In July 2010, Becker ordered a custom-made natural-gas fire pit from a company in Colorado, at a cost of $3,450. In an e-mail exchange with the sales representative, Becker said he planned to install the unit inside. The sales rep wrote back, emphasizing that the units were for outdoor use only.
"I am aware," Becker wrote. "I just don't see the difference. I[t] is a pit with a pipe."
As an outdoor unit, however, the fire pit was designed to have an 8-foot clearance above it. Becker's plan was to build the fireplace into a recessed alcove in the wall, with only about 18 inches of clearance. The outdoor unit was also intended to have ventilation from the open air, without which it would be prone to overheating. The owner of the company that manufactures the fire pits would later testify that he was "shocked, to say the least," to see one installed indoors.
In the e-mail to the sales rep, Becker wrote that he would cover the pit with fire-resistant materials. In the worst-case scenario, he noted, the building inspector might ask for a certification number. "If the pits don't have that number, than [sic] I have to put them in after the inspection," he wrote.
Prosecution experts would later document a long list of problems with the fireplace. Becker built the frame out of wood and drywall, both of which are flammable, instead of metal or brick. He covered the wood with tile and cement board, but that was not enough of a buffer to prevent the frame from catching fire. They also found he did not provide the appropriate clearances or venting.
"This particular system is so far off the mark," Dale Feb, a prosecution expert, testified at the preliminary hearing. "There is no way that anyone that had any type of familiarity with this product would do this."
The house caught fire on Feb. 16, 2011. Becker had rented out the house for $100,000 to Germany's Next Top Model, a spinoff of the Tyra Banks show hosted by Heidi Klum. The models were due to move in the following week.
Prosecutors would allege that Becker rushed the installation of the fireplace to have it done before the models moved in — a charge that Becker adamantly denies.
"They're saying I built this in a hurry for someone," he says. "The house is finished in 2010. The first contact I had with [the production company] was in January 2011. How can it make sense if I don't even know about these people until January?"
Becker told investigators that on the night of the fire, he turned off the fireplace before going out to dinner. If so, it appears that the wood frame smoldered for several hours before igniting the wall. But it's also possible that the fireplace overheated early in the evening, triggering a safety mechanism that shut it off. In this scenario, Becker may have believed he had turned it off, but when the fireplace cooled down again, it would have turned itself back on.
After the fire, Bescos wrote a report pinning the blame on two things: the faulty fireplace and the lack of fire stops inside the walls. But in court, Bescos acknowledged that he had signed off on Becker's plan to use insulation as a fire stop rather than building physical barriers.
The fireplace has become a source of intense dispute. Bescos maintains that he knew nothing about it until after the fire. He testified that Becker told him in September 2010 that he was not planning to install one. When he did the final inspection in November 2010, he said he did not see a fireplace. He suggested to investigators that it had either been covered over with drywall in an effort to conceal it, or installed after the inspection.
But Becker and his attorney, Donald Ré, hotly dispute this.
"This guy lied like crazy," Becker says.
Ré argues that Bescos approved the fireplace at the final inspection, perhaps because he was working too quickly and gave only a cursory overview of the house. After the fire, Ré maintains, Bescos covered himself by lying and claiming that he had never seen the fireplace.
"He's willing to blame Mr. Becker for this and take the blame off himself," Ré argued at the preliminary hearing.
If the building inspector approved the fireplace, Ré argues, then Becker cannot be found grossly negligent for constructing it. Beyond that, Ré contends that the government cannot prosecute someone for conduct it previously condoned.
Becker is not claiming that the fireplace was well built. He says he thought that covering the wood with cement board and tile would make it fireproof.
"I was thinking I could manage the issue covering up everything with noncombustible material," he tells the Weekly.
Though he was wrong, his belief was evidently sincere. Otherwise, he and his girlfriend would not have been asleep in the house when the fire broke out.
But that's as much fault as he will acknowledge. Asked whether it was a mistake to put an outdoor fireplace indoors, he asks: "What makes an outdoor unit an outdoor unit and an indoor unit an indoor unit? I asked that and I didn't get an answer. I would appreciate it if someone would explain."
Glenn Allen was given a hero's funeral. Some 8,000 mourners filed into the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Allen, 61, had joined the department in 1974, following in the footsteps of his father, an LAFD engineer.
For the last 16 years of his life, Allen served at Fire Station 97, on Mulholland Drive near Laurel Canyon. The firefighters there mounted Allen's uniform, his badge and his ax in a shadow box on the wall — a reminder, they say, of the dangers they face.
Allen devoted much of his spare time to Valley Presbyterian Church in North Hills, where he was a deacon and a member of the choir. He left behind his wife and a daughter. The day after he died, his first grandson was born.
His widow, Melanie Allen, declined to be interviewed for this story. (Out of concern for her privacy, his fire department colleagues also declined to speak extensively.) Last August, she filed a lawsuit against Becker, accusing him of "despicable conduct."
The suit alleges a broad range of violations, including that Becker had built a "highly flammable hidden void space" in the ceiling; that he had not installed fire stops; that he had shut off the water supply to the house, hampering firefighting efforts; that he failed to warn the firefighters that they were entering a death trap; and that he committed arson. The claims go well beyond the errors cited by the inspectors and investigators.
In reply, Becker's lawyers asked that the entire case be dismissed under the "Firefighters' Rule." "The undergirding legal principle of the rule is the assumption of the risk," Becker's attorney wrote. "Firefighters, whose occupation by its very nature exposes them to risk of harm, cannot complain of negligence in the creation of the very occasion for their engagement."
Greg Keating, a professor at the USC Gould School of Law, agrees that the Firefighter's Rule will be a difficult hurdle to overcome.
"It's not an easy claim for the plaintiff to win," he says. The idea behind the rule, he says, is "that the firefighter has already been compensated in advance for this risk through very generous disability benefits and health and retirement benefits."
While Becker has been accused of numerous building code violations, several experts said it is not so unusual for architects to circumvent certain rules.
"Some code requirements may seem illogical or useless," says Mehrdad Farivar, an attorney who used to practice as an architect. "People do comply, and then they reverse things [after inspection]. But most architects wouldn't mess around with something that's a life-safety issue."
Brian Stewart, an attorney who represents architects in contract disputes, agrees.
"People do skirt building codes," he says. "Usually it's not on life safety. People are sensitive to that."
While Becker was certainly responsible for building a dangerously defective fireplace, other factors contributed to Allen's death.
A report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found several mistakes the firefighters had made in attacking the fire. The most serious one was that they failed to anticipate that the ceiling could collapse.
At the preliminary hearing, Watters said he had never experienced a ceiling collapse in 14 years as a firefighter. But the NIOSH investigators argued that the firefighters should have been aware that the longer the fire burned uncontrolled in the attic, the more likely a collapse became.
Among other concerns, the report also faulted the incident commander for failing to establish a rescue team until after the collapse. That should have been done immediately.
Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney argues that those factors are beside the point. For the purposes of prosecution, Carney is focused on Becker's decision to build a fireplace out of combustible material. That decision was not the only thing that led to Allen's death, but Carney argues that it's enough for a manslaughter conviction.
"As long as he supplied a link in the chain that led to the victim's death — even if others supplied additional links — as long as that was foreseeable, he is still culpable," Carney says. "Firefighters are human. They're not going to perform expertly every time. But by creating a condition that led to the death, he can still be responsible."
If the case goes to trial, Becker may have difficulty winning sympathy from a jury.
"I expect he's gonna try and blame everybody except himself," Carney says. "I don't think he's going to get much traction blaming the firefighters."
Soon after he was interviewed by the police in March 2011, Becker returned to Mallorca.
He had little to keep him in Los Angeles. His daughter had decided she did not like Arizona after all, and had returned to Germany. Kolb, his girlfriend, had also returned to be with her children.
On a trip to Italy, Becker proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes. Together they built another large, modern house in the Mallorcan countryside, where they planned to live.
The home on Viewsite Drive was repaired during his time in Mallorca. Workers installed a new fireplace, one that was designed for indoor use. According to prosecutors, it cost $30,000 — more than eight times the cost of the deadly outdoor unit.
Becker flew back to L.A. in February 2012 to take care of some financial details with the house. He had no idea he was still in legal jeopardy — until LAPD officers met him at the airport with a warrant for his arrest.
Becker now wears a GPS device on his ankle. He is not under formal house arrest, but he is forbidden from leaving L.A. County or going near the airport. He has few friends here, he says, and rarely goes out.
Meanwhile, his visa has expired.
"Actually I'm illegal here," Becker says. "It's a strange legal status."
For now, his personal and professional life is in limbo. He cannot return to Mallorca to be married, and his father is too ill to come to L.A. for a ceremony.
He is not licensed to practice architecture in California. He was only able to build his own house because he owns the land. In any case, he has no Social Security number and can't get one without a passport, which has been confiscated. He has nothing to do but wait for the case to be over.
"Trying not to get crazy, trying not to get angry — that's the daily routine," he says.
If convicted, Becker faces up to four years in state prison. The prosecutors have offered him a deal for two years, which he finds absurd.
"I understand somebody died," he says. "I understand somebody died, who was trying to save my house. I really appreciate that. But to say I was willingly building a trap in my house —"
He shakes his head.
See also: Slideshow of Gerhard Becker's House
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.