Thursday, May 9, 2013

Gerhard Becker Preliminary Hearing, Part I

Gerhard Becker © Thomas Broersma April 2012

Last year, before I became ill, I had the opportunity to attend Gerhard Becker's preliminary hearing held in Dept. 42, Judge Michael Tynan's courtroom.  It was an amazing experience as you will find if you stick around to read the future installments of the Becker prelim. Sprocket. 

UPDATE 8/27/13: spelling
November 13th, 2012
The preliminary hearing for Gerhard Becker is supposed to start today.  Becker is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of firefighter Glenn Allen.  Once Becker's case is called in Dept. 30, Judge Torrealba will assign a courtroom for the case to be heard.

Fifth Floor Hallway
8:29 am. I arrive on the 5th floor for Dept 30.  I see Detective Greg Stearns is here with another man I don't recognize.  The man with Stearns is wearing a nicely tailored gray suit and a sharp black and white stripe tie. There are large white binders on their laps and a rolling cart filled with files.  Becker is with his defense attorney down the hallway a ways.  He's wearing a gray suit, white shirt pink tie and brown socks and shoes. Becker's female companion is not here today.

Detective Stearns has grown a mustache and I'm trying to reconcile in my mind the entirely new look.  He's wearing a white shirt and a red tie with a black and white pattern.  Becker's right leg is crossed over his left and I can barely see the GPS device on his right leg.  The courtroom isn't open yet and the hallway traffic is very light for the fifth floor.

There is a side door to the courtroom that has a button pass code.  I watch several familiar faces enter Dept. 30 through this door.

Standing with Stearns is a third man wearing a goatee and mustache.  He doesn't look like a detective, he's probably a witness.  Donald Re gets up from his bench seat and takes the stairwell across from me.  My friend Matthew McGough arrives.  A tall silver haired man in a black suit arrives and greets Stearns.  An older black man in a formal uniform arrives.  The uniformed man has two stripes on the sleeve and is wearing very shiny black patent leather shoes.  I see his name tag: Watters.

Donald Re reenters the hallway from the stairwell and DDA Frances Young has arrived.  She's wearing an emerald green jacket with a slight flair at the hip and a black straight line skirt.  Around her neck is a short string of white pearls.  She's carrying a medium sized, black patent leather clutch with an embossed pattern.

I get a better look at the over six foot silver haired man.  He's wearing a shimmering light blue tie that matches his eyes.

The hallway is starting it get very busy now. Stearns rubs his face while chatting with the other gentlemen.  More staff enter through the pass code door and Frances Young follows in with one of them.

Waiting For A Trial Court Assignment in Dept. 30
8:50 am. I'm finally inside Dept 30.  Young gets in line with attorneys at the clerk's desk.  After checking in, she takes a seat at one of the many chairs in that complicated array of desks in the well.  There are no other reporters here for the Becker case, just Matthew and myself.  The female deputy from the Lazarus case is still assigned to Dept 30.  Detective Stearns enters the well and speaks to Young.

The activity in Dept. 30 is a repeat of prior visits.  Counsel come and go, conversations going in all areas of the courtroom.  At the end of the bench row we're sitting in, there is a weathered faced bearded attorney speaking to his clients.  He's carrying a leather satchel and I point out to Matthew the huge black binder clip attached to the satchel strap.  There's probably a story about that binder clip.  Two women are at the interpreter's desks, reading newspapers.  The desks in the well are about half full.  The man with the walrus worthy mustache is here as well as the tall barrel chested DDA the first time we came to Dept. 30.  The court reporter is someone new, and not the woman who was here during our last visit.

Donald Re sits in the bench row in front of us. Matthew introduces himself to Re and asks how his last name is pronounced.  Re responds, "Ray."

More attorneys enter the well and greet each other.  At 9:05 am Judge Torrealba takes the bench and greets the room, "Good morning everyone."  There is a small response from the room, "Good morning your honor."

Judge Torrealba starts off with some extradition matters.  The well continues to be busy as counsel come and go.  There's a defendant on the large TV monitor. Once his case is heard another defendant on the monitor.

9:12 am DDA Carney arrives. He greets Re and chats with him a bit.  Carney is wearing a suit I've seen before.  It's light gray and he's wearing a silvery, light gray shirt and red patterned tie.  Re goes over a stack of photos Carney hands him.  I can clearly see the photos from where I am sitting.  They are photos of Becker's burned  house.  Now I see photos of the fireplaces that were installed on several of the floors.

After the review of the photos, Carney exits the courtroom.  Up on the overhead screen, a DDA down at the jail and a public defender get into an argument.  In a very commanding tone Judge Torrealba addresses them, "STOP THIS."

DDA Lisa Kassabian (Mrs. Alan Jackson) enters Dept. 30, smiles that beautiful smile of hers and gives me a quick wave.  Matthew introduces me to Donald Re and mentions T&T.  Re responds that he has heard of T&T.  Looking over at Detective Stearns, it appears that there are dark shadows under his eyes. A few photographers with lots of equipment over their shoulders enter the courtroom and present paperwork to the female bailiff.  Matthew and and I wonder how Thomas Broersma is doing.  Re is now in the well of the court having a friendly chat with DDA Frances Young. They appear to be joking, smiling.

Vania Stuep from local ABC 7 shows up.  Becker enters the courtroom and chats with his attorney for a moment.  Defendants come and go as their cases are being heard. Some are out on bail, some are in custody and brought into the fish tank.  I'm tired already. I barely got enough sleep last night.

10:05 am Judge Torrealba calls the case.  The case is assigned to Dept 42 @11:30 am.  Dept. 42 is on the third floor.  So there's a bit of time to waste until 11:30 am.  My notes are not clear, but at some point Matthew and I find out that the prelim is delayed until after lunch, at 2:00 pm.  It's the Judge's birthday, and his staff is having a party for him. We stop by DDA Paul Nunez's office to pick up copies of the DA's pamphlet on Cooley's legacy.

Department 42
1:43 pm I'm on the 3rd floor of the criminal court building. Michael J. Tynan has been on the superior court for a long time.  He presided over the Night Stalker case that took over 15 months.  ABC reporter Vanjia Stujep is here along with courtroom sketch artist Mona Edwards, who chat amicably with Donald Re.  I realize that I've never been in a courtroom on this floor before. 

While we wait for Judge Tynan's courtroom to open, I start to notice everyones footwear.  DDA Frances Young is wearing black hose, open toed, black patent leather heels with a sling strap.  I try to determine what firefighter Watters' rank is. A friend told me to look at the pins on the lapel.  Watters' has two triangular pins on his lapel.   DDA Carney, Detective Stearns and the other gentlemen arrive on the third floor.   I think the prelim is finally going to get off the ground.  DDA Young politely asks how I'm doing.

1:55 pm Matthew finally makes it to the third floor.  The conversation among everyone is easy, jovial.  It's not a sheriff who finally opens the courtroom, but an older, unassuming man in a blue shirt who is putting his tie back on.  Someone mentions that this is Judge Tynan who unlocks the courtroom door and I immediately know that I'm going to like this judge.

(Matthew and I later learn that Judge Tynan's courtroom oversees several programs to help defendants and veterans with alcohol, drug addiction and mental illness issues, as well as and women facing a return to prison.  More on this as the prelim story continues. Sprocket)

There is a huge portable screen set up in the gallery facing the witness stand. It also blocks the view of the witness stand from the gallery.  Judge Tynan's courtroom does not have a screen mounted on the wall directly across from the jury box, so the DA's office has brought a portable screen to present exhibits during the preliminary hearing.

The sketch artist Mona Edwards asks Judge Tynan if she can sit in the jury box.  Judge Tynan asks her, "Are you a nice person?"  He then invites her back to his chambers to show her courtroom sketches he has on the walls of his chambers.  Mona comes out of Judge Tynan’s chambers and tells the group he showed her two sketches.  

DDA Carney greets the AP reporter, who then introduces themselves to Judge Tynan.

Judge Tynan is kind enough to let the press sit in the jury box.  We will be able to see the exhibits on the screen.  It’s an entirely different vibe than sitting in the gallery.  The feeling is one of coziness, more personal.  It also helps that the courtroom gallery is empty.  The press are the only people attending this prelim.  Matthew and I are amazed at how different an experience this is, sitting in the jury box, so close to the parties presenting their case.  Once in the jury box we can see that there is a stack of large and small teddy bears on the floor behind the chair in the witness box. Matthew and I wonder what the bears are all about. A beautiful bouquet of yellow roses are delivered to Judge Tynan on his birthday.

People v. Becker
The case is finally called.  People v. Becker.

Judge Tynan asks the people if they are co-prosecuting.  Carney states he is the lead prosecutor.  The mood of the courtroom is set when Judge Tynan asks Carney, “Are you prepared to give her (DDA Frances Young) orders?”  And Carney responds, “It rarely works like that.”

The first witness is called.


Frances Young presents the witness.  Another witness is excused to the hallway.

Steck is the owner of Hearth Products Construction Company.  They distribute, repair components and manufacture outdoor fire pits.  They are located in Katerina, Ohio.  The company has been in business 35 years.

If I’m remembering correctly, an image of one of their products is put up on the screen.
The model “HWI” fire pit.

FY: What is it?
GS: It’s an outdoor fire pit. 

It’s the main components to deliver a gas flame via an electronic ignition.  The fire pits are designed strictly for use outdoors.   Steck states that a fireplace is a three sided enclosure. An outdoor fire pit is an open flame.

In the HWI, there is a control box that houses the gas valve and other components, (the burner, etc.).

Young hands the witness a paper and pen and asks, “Please draw it for us.”

I believe Carney interrupts and presents to the court a copy of the prelim exhibits they are going to use in their presentation.  The witness draws two side view diagrams of the WHI fire pit. (I will upload my inadequate attempt to recreate the two diagrams asap. Sprocket.)

The witness states the flames comes out of the long (trough) pan.  The pilot light ignitor is in the pan.  The flame will reach twelve to sixteen inches in height, depending on the gas pressure and gas line size.

FY: Is there a safety mechanism?
GS: Yes.

The first line of safety is the thermocouple that turns the unit off when it cools down.  The second safety is a snap switch if the temperature gets above 175 degrees.  The witness states the clearance over the flame should be 96 inches, about eight feet.  Fire pits usually come with lava rock or glass.

FY: Is there an apparatus they (customers) can put above the flame?
GS: No.

The only time to cover it is to protect it from the rain.  The unit should be inside a non-combustible enclosure such as stone or stainless steel.  Wood and drywall are not acceptable since they are combustible.  The HWI fire pit is a triangular pan. The company includes instructions with all the appliances they sell.  I believe the witness states that the instructions state the fire pits should be installed by someone certified to install them.

FY: They're never made, this model, for indoor (use)?
GS: No. Strictly for outdoor use.
FY: Are you aware of indoor pits that have a similar look?
GS: No.

The dealer sells to the end user.  Colorado Hearth & Home Company is the distributor and vendor.

FY: Do you make custom orders?
GS: Yes.

The HWI fire pit comes in two feet, three feet, four feet, six feet and 92 inches.  In 2010, the largest length they sold was 48 inches (four feet).  They will also make a custom order.  The witness explains that the dealer will fill out a quote sheet.

FY: Did Colorado Hearth & Home receive an order on behalf of Gerhard Becker, and that was for a fifteen foot fire pit (180")?
GS: Yes.

His company also received a request (from Becker) for other fire pits, standard sizes in stock.  Two 36 inch units, one 24" unit and one 19" round unit. Becker purchased a total of five fire pits.

FY: When you send out the finished product, do you send...
DR: Objection!
JT: Sustained!
FY: What paperwork is included in the shipment?
DR: Objection!
JT: Overruled!

The witness states that within the warehouse, he's packaged appliances himself and supervised the packaging of units.  The instructions packaged in the unit would vary, depending on the model.  The company would have included in the shipment installation instructions for the HWI model.

FY: And a warning to read instructions in full?
DR: Objection!
JT: Sustained!
FY: The instruction manual, where is it kept before it's shipped out?
GS: It's sent out near the time of shipment.

The witness states that he assisted with developing the instruction manual.  An electronic copy is kept on the company's servers.  He brought a copy to court of installation instructions the company was using in 2010.  It's a three-page document, entered as People's exhibit 42.

There is a bit of confusion while the prosecution tries to find the right document from 2010.   I believe the prosecution informs the court that this is the current document and not the one in use from 2010. That document is included in the 42 pages of prelim exhibits.  The witness goes over the instructions document that would have been sent out with the HWI unit.  In large red letters on one of the pages it reads, “WARNING” FOR OUTDOOR USE ONLY. 

The witness goes over everything that’s included in the six page manual; the height clearance needed, needs to be installed by a certified person.  If the installation instructions are not followed exactly, it could cause damage, injury or loss of life.

People’s exhibit 9 is a safety warning tag placed on the burner.  It’s taped to the burner bar itself.  It would need to be removed before the fire pit is put in use.  The witness helped draft the document.

It’s the responsibility of the installer to follow the instructions provided with this unit.  Failure to do so could cause an explosion, uncontrolled fire, resulting in property damage, personal injury or loss of life. 

(I believe the manual also states) Do not cover vents or pilot opening.  The witness states there is a snap switch inside the control box that is designed to protect the brains of the unit.  It would take several minutes, but it goes off when it reaches a certain temperature.  If (the unit) cools and power still attached it will turn power back on; if the unit is on.  It could set on restart several times.  The unit will go through 15 cycles before it’s locked out.  A normal draft could trip the safety features.

On August 10th, his company shipped one of the 3 ft models, one of the 2 ft models and the 19” round model.  On August 20th, they then shipped the second 3 ft model.  On September 20th, the custom model, the long linear trough style was shipped.

FY: Included instructions?
GS: On each item.

In early 2011, he received a call that his (?) was notified that his product was the point of origin (of the fire).  The LAPD and Robbery Homicide Detective Greg Stearns showed him photos.  The witness stated he was “in shock” that the product had been installed in a home and the fact that wood had been used to enclose the fire pits.

A photo of the fifteen foot fire pit is put up on the overhead screen.  The pit was built into a wall, down low, and there was about 18 inches of overhead wall clearance above this fire pit.  So it was built in, similar to a built in fireplace, except, the surrounding materials were wood and drywall.  The two valve boxes were underneath the V-shaped metal pan.

Photos are introduced showing that wood was used below and around the valve boxes to support the fire pit.  A photo with a tape measure to show there was 16 to 17 inches clearance above the fire pit.  The flames could have reached the ceiling of the drywall.

Another photo introduced where tile was placed over the drywall. Another photo shows the fire burned whatever was behind the pit.  Another photo, People’s 16, the underside of the fire pit. Wood construction enclosure is a fire concern.  The witness identifies the wires and leads around the valve box.

Carney whispers to Frances Young a question to ask the witness.

FY: (The image in the photo) Is different than new?
GS: Yes. (It’s) burned out.

People’s exhibit 18, the blow-out box of the fire pit trough. The witness points out on the photo where the gas pipe goes. Another photo, People’s 20, showing the burning around the valve box and the silver coupling.  Another photo, Peoples 23 of the fire pit.  It was put in a wall enclosure and had decorative glass.  People’s 24. The witness identifies parts of the ignitors and that the pits can be started by remote control.

More photos of the other fire pits that were installed in the house. There was a pit installed in a bedroom and another pit installed in a bathroom.

FY: Are any of the pits installed according to your instructions?
GS: No.

The afternoon break is called.  When the break is called, Judge Tynan offers cake to the room.  The witness, Gerhard Becker and several others sample the cake.  Matthew tells me the cake was delicious.  Carney tells Re that he did a preliminary hearing in the building that went almost to 11 PM.  That’s rare for courtrooms to go beyond 4:30 PM.

Earlier, Terri Keith from City News arrived.  The screen that’s set up in the gallery was set up by the DA’s office.  Judge Tynan’s courtroom doesn’t have a wall mounted pull down screen like the courtrooms on the 9th floor do.

Judge Tynan is a very open, relaxed judge.  I really like him.  Frances and Sean admire Mona’s sketches. 

Judge Perry’s courtroom procedure is mentioned.  Someone says that Judge Perry won’t let you wait for a witness.  If counsel don’t have a witness ready, you’re done in his courtroom.

When the break is over, the Terri Keith and the AP reporter leave. Re then begins his cross examination.

Re asks the witness what he is able to determine from a photo (the one with the tape measure that shows the height) about the installation of the 15 ft fire pit.  The witness would have to fully examine it to determine if it(?) was fully installed. The witness is not sure who told him the material around the fire pit was drywall.

DR: Can you identify (the 15 ft fire pit) as absolutely your product?
GS: Yes. We have the only one like that in the world.
DR: On this occasion, were those items sent to Mr. Becker or to Colorado Hearth & Home?
GS: To Mr. Becker

It’s common for products to be drop-shipped to a customer.  The witness does not have personal knowledge if those instructions went into the packages shipped to Becker.

Re asks the witness if the fire pit could be installed with an eight foot tall covering, or tree limbs over a house, or in an overhang or a pergola.  The witness doesn't know what a pergola is.

DR: What I'm calling a pergola doesn't not have walls.
GS: It's possible, pursuant to instructions, to install in a structure.
DR: But it can be put in a pergola, structure.
GS: (miss answer)
DR: Was your (fire pit) ever submitted to any organization in California for it's use (indoors?)?
GS: No.

I believe the witness states it has been to CFA (?).  The limitations as to the installations was imposed by his company. The module was designed for outdoor use.

DR: Are you aware of any failure of your equipment that resulted in a fire?
GS: Not that I'm aware.

Re asks the witness to describe how the fire pit turns off.  There's nothing in the unit to detect if the unit was installed inside.  There is another question about the main box assembly.

Cross ends and redirect begins.

DDA Young puts up a photo of a pergola for the witness to get an idea of what they were talking about, and the witness explains that this is not an enclosed space. The witness states that this company has a team leader and production manager who is in charge of ensuring that the appropriate warnings and instructions get shipped with every unit.

The sales order for the 15 foot custom trough is entered into evidence.  The price of the custom 15 ft fire pit trough was $3,450.00.  The order entry was completed.  The company received documents from Hearth Product Controls.  Order entry makes the sales order.  $3,450 was dealer cost.  It was shipped to Gerhard Becker at 1546 Viewsite Drive., Los Angeles, CA

The second sales order is entered into evidence.  This is for the standard sized fire pits. It's similar to the prior exhibit.  The 3 ft trough cost $995.  The 2 ft trough cost $880.  The 19" round fire pit cost $995.  Those were all dealer costs.  The serial numbers were put on the items.  The next paper is the back order shipment for the second 3 ft trough, $995.  It was then sent directly to Gerhard Becker.

Another document entered into evidence.  This particular instruction document was tailored for the raw pan.  Only for the pan and burner.  (I miss the explanation why they are different.)  The fire pit was certified under Canadian ANSI standards by (?) CSA (?). The witness states this company does extensive testing for Canada and the USA. 

FY: What does ANSI standard mean?
GS: This is the body that approves standards that most gas products are tested to.

(CSA) It's a testing body that would test to ANSI standards.

Redirect ends and recross begins.

The witness states he submits products to CSA for testing.  (My notes are not clear, but I believe he stated his products are never tested for indoor use.

That's it for recross.  Judge Tynan releases the witness but he is subject to recall at a later time.


DDA Young presents the witness.  Watters is a firefighter.  He's been a fire captain for 14.5 years.  He's assigned to Fire Station 41 in Hollywood.  He supervises (5?) people.  His unit responds to various types of calls.  Fire calls, structure, etc.

There were a number of companies that responded to the fire. Engine Company 41, Rescue 41 (paramedics) Light Force Co 61,  Engine 97,  Company 27, Battalion 5.  Battalion 5 also has an EMS paramedic, a chief and a driver.  The number of units called depends on the size of the fire.  They may have 4 engines, 2 trucks or 2 rescues.  He was dispatched to the site, right after he cleared (another call?).  The address was 1546 Viewsite Drive. The name on the dispatch was "Dane Cook".

Captain Watters had previously (been involved? interacted?) with Dane Cook and he was familiar with the area.  Dane Cook, one of the residents, had painted a fire hydrant (in front of his house?) black. The City installed it.  Photo of houses on the street is presented.

FY: Is Dane Cook an actor?
CEW: That's correct.

Someone asks, Has he been in anything good?  I have in my notes a response, 'Who knows... that's debatable.'  Watters points out in the photo Dane Cook's house.  These are very large homes in the area.

Watters was called to a three story dwelling next to Cook.  Two of the stories are under the street level (hugging the hillside). A floor plan outline of the house is entered into evidence.  It's an odd shaped house.   (When I have time, I will post my poor attempts to recreate the floor plan of the top floor of the house. Sprocket)

FY: What type of fire (was the call)?
CEW: Three engines, one truck, one battalion, 1 rescue.  Call came across as a structure fire.

He responded after 11 PM at night.  When he turned on Viewsite Drive, he saw a glow.  There was no smoke showing from the front of the house.  He first saw the exterior fire along a wall.  From the street he assumed it was a two story single family dwelling and the fire was burning on the side of the house.  Watters uses the laser pointer on a photo of the house, showing where the fire was located/started. It was on the "D" side, (the sides of the house were labeled in the exhibit), facing the street by an Andy Gump (port-a-potty).

Because of the amount of glass wall, he was able to see through the house and see that there was no fire inside the house and interior glass wall.

CEW: So initially, it appeared the fire was on the outside.

Watters extinguished that fire on the exterior.  After extinguishing the exterior fire, his firefighters
entered the "C" side of the building.  There was no visible fire inside the home.  Very light smoke.

CEW: I didn't know that they had an interior fire until he saw the roof line of the home.

A screenshot from a video is shown, where firefighters are making an opening on the roof of the house.  When the firefighters started cutting, then the fire started venting out the hole.

CEW: It provides a chimney effect.  They were venting and allowing the fire to come out.

A video is introduced into evidence.  There was an coordinated effort on the roof to open a chimney effect.

CEW: You don't want to walk on a roof if there is a fire below you. ... Venting directs the fire to burn out and will force it out of the house.  ... On the roof, they first cut an inspection hole to see if there's fire and that's what they got.

Watters' crew entered the building and grabbed thermal images via a thermal imaging camera. It registered red.  It gave Watters a picture of the fire on the screen.  The firefighters started to pull the ceiling down.  The crew used six foot poles with a hook on the end. It's a sharp point on a pipe pole, to grab drywall and pull it down.

The next step is to direct water into the hole, created by the pole hook.  It was difficult to pull the ceiling down.  The crew needed to take seats and step on them because the ceiling was so high.

Another video, People's 5.

One of the problems was height of the ceiling.  The attic space was very large.  Lots of insulation in there.  The witness describes more procedures on getting an advantage on the fire.

Watters' states he's never seen an entire ceiling come down.  He's seen pieces of drywall come down that were not installed properly.

The area of the house on People's five is off of  "C/D" corner.

And that's it for testimony on Day 1.  This is a relief since I'm so tired I'm about to fall asleep.  Judge Tynan orders everyone back at 10:30 AM.  Becker's bail stands.

To be continued....
Judge Tynan was the judge in the Richard Ramirez "Night Stalker" case, and he has a memento from that trial, in his current courtroom. Sprocket