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Architect pleads no contest in L.A. fireman death

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LOS ANGELES » A German architect pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter today in the death of a Los Angeles firefighter crushed in the collapse of a ceiling during a fire at a luxury home the architect designed and built in the Hollywood Hills.

Gerhard Albert Becker, 49, was sentenced to three years of probation and a year in county jail. However, his attorney said Becker will only serve six months in custody. About a dozen firefighters were in the courtroom to watch him enter the plea.

During the Feb. 16, 2011, fire at the mansion, water from a melted pipe filled a false ceiling until it collapsed on 61-year-old firefighter Glenn Allen, who died two days later. Five other people were injured.

Authorities faulted the construction, including a third-floor fireplace that was one of four in the home designed only for outdoor use.

Becker, a well-known architect in Europe who was working on his first U.S. project and was also the owner and construction contractor on the home, had been awaiting trial.

He "acted recklessly and with gross negligence," engaging in deliberate deception and intending to evade building codes, Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan found after a preliminary hearing in the case in 2012.

The fire began in the top-floor fireplace shortly after a certificate of occupancy had been issued, investigators said. As the fire raged through the 12,000 square-foot house, a plastic sprinkler pipe melted, filling the false ceiling made of drywall and wood with water and causing it to collapse and crush the veteran firefighter as he was fighting the flames. Chain saws had to be used to free him from the debris.

Los Angeles city building inspector Brad Bascos said at the preliminary hearing that after the fire he discovered four fireplaces that had been installed in violation of building codes. Bascos testified that Becker never mentioned fireplaces during construction and he did not see them during inspections before the fire. Bascos said he never would have approved them.

Bascos said they were made of drywall and two-by-fours with electrical extension cords and plugs hidden behind the walls, with inadequate ventilation and insufficient distance between wood and flames. He said drywall behind the fireplaces had been scorched.

The home was to have been the location of a photo shoot for the reality TV show "Germany’s Next Top Model" just two days after the fire.

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