Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gerhard Becker Case: Preliminary Hearing Part II

Gerhard Becker shortly after his arrest in February 2012 (ABC News)

Continued from Gerhard Becker Preliminary Hearing, Part I...

UPDATED 1/12/14: spelling of Captain Mulvehill's name
Wednesday, November 14th, 2012
9:33 AM
I’m in Dept. 42 on the third floor of the Clara Shortridge-Foltz Criminal Justice Center.  Becker is seated in the last row of the gallery.  Detective Stearns is in the first row.  I smile at Becker who give a sort of forced smile back.  Detective Stearns glances back at me but has a neutral expression on his face.  Stearns is legendary for his stern expression inside a courtroom.

Judge Tynan’s court is currently handling hearings for individuals in treatment programs, or individuals who were in treatment programs who were rearrested using drugs and/or alcohol.  It's my understanding that Judge Tynan was the one who initiated the "drug court" programs in Los Angeles County.  He also started a women's program.

10:35 AM 
Becker’s defense attorney Donald Re arrives.  Re takes a seat in the jury box. He’s reviewing a file. 

A defendant is brought out. It’s a Latino woman in a lime green jumpsuit.  Judge Tynan takes the bench. The defendant pleads to her mother.  Judge Tynan addresses the defendant, “Do you think it will make your father feel better to stay in jail?”  (I've only been in Judge Tynan's courtroom for one day and I already love him as a judge.)

The AP reporter arrives along with City News reporter Terri Keith.  DDA Frances Young is here. She’s wearing a gorgeous purple jacket over a black scoop neck blouse and a three strand pearl necklace.  I already love Young’s sense of style.  She always looks sharp, sophisticated and feminine, all at the same time.

Judge Tynan asks the defendant something to the effect of, Are you going to do the right thing or are you going to do what you usually do?

The defendant makes her decision. “I’ll take the time.” She’s going to do what she usually does, and stay in jail for almost another year and not cooperate with authorities.

10:52 AM
Judge Tynan’s calendar clears and the Becker prelim is back on the record.  The press gets to sit in the jury box again.  Again, it gives a very intimate feeling to the court process.

Tynan addresses Captain Watters, “Ready to take the stand?”  Watters’s replies, “Yes sir.”  Judge Tynan tells the witness, “You don’t have to call me sir. I was an enlisted man.”

Captain Watters continues with his testimony from the day before.  He's still under direct examination.

When they opened up the ceiling, they had a visible fire on the outside of the house, but also visible fire on the inside of the house. Watters told (him? someone?) they were not getting it with the water hoses, the main body, ‘seat’ of the fire.  Watters indicated that they needed to pull more ceiling.

Watters was inside the structure.  Judge Tynan asks about a word Watters used “seat” of the fire.  The seat of the fire was on that first light that burned out.  The thermal imaging camera was directed at the ceiling and he saw fire.  Watters was unaware there was a ‘void’ space in the ceiling.  And, there was a twenty-four-inch space behind the wall on the ‘D’ wall.  A wall behind the wall.

Once they opened up the wall to the void space, they made progress on the fire.  Watters said he had never seen that before in construction.  There was a void space behind the origin, starting point of the fire. Once firefighters go into that void space and applied water (opened up the hose) they started to get a handle on the fire.

The equipment and gear a firefighter carries is about fifty pounds.

After they got that fire under control, they used the thermal imaging and started looking for hot spots.  They started pulling down ceiling in other areas. He and his crew (two other firefighters), saw a flicker on the D wall, 10 to 15 minutes later.

People’s exhibit 8, photo of glass door on C-D corner.

Watters describes who was on the scene.  A paramedic, a battalion chief, firefighters from Ladder 7.  Engines 7, 97, 41, were working on the fire near the fireplace wall.  Captain [Kevin] Mulvehill, 97, was over at the stairwell.

People’s 5, photo of firefighters taking down the ceiling drywall with hooks.

They could see perfectly well through the house.  There wasn’t enough smoke in the structure to darken his face piece.  After they got inside the void space, saw smoke come out of a sprinkler head.

All at once, inside the door frame, facing south, BANG!  Captain Watters is down, lying down on his back facing east.  He sees fire above his head. It took Captain Watters a few seconds to realize he was buried under a bunch of material. He couldn’t move.  He tried to reach his arm up.  There was a beam across his face.  He was lying between two joists.  “I couldn’t move. ... I was completely immobilized.”  Watters tried to reach his emergency beacon.  He was calling for firefighter ‘Chad.’ There was an eerie silence in the house. “I didn’t hear chain saws. Nothing.” Watters wondered why he (Chad) wasn’t coming. He continued to tell himself not to panic and remain calm.

Chad walked up. “Man... his eyes were like saucers. ... He was standing on my chest. ... "Get this off me! ... I’m pretty strong,”  (I can lift 260.) Watters continues.

Judge Tynan interrupts Watters testimony. “Are we talking bench press?  We need to be accurate here.”  The figure 315lbs is mentioned for a dead lift.

Chad hit the emergency beacon. Chad and (Sittoway?) started to lift boards off of Watters.

Defense attorney Re objects.  “I’m sorry he’s gone through this, but I don’t see how this is related to charges.” Judge Tynan replies, “Over ruled!”

I believe it's DDA Carney who responds, “We can probably condense it.”

Three people lifted the wall and got the beams off of him.  His ankle was dislocated and he broke a tibia bone in his leg. He had surgery. He has a metal plate in his ankle and leg.

People’s exhibit 6, photo of the massive destruction that happened from the fire showing the collapse of walls, the ceiling.

Re starts off by saying, “First, glad you’re okay. ... Describe the area in the attic.”

It’s a space between the interior ceiling and the roof.  There was a two pronged attack.  People on the roof were cutting away to get rid of heat and locate fire.  “There was no water used on the roof of the fire. ... It’s not how we fight fire in LA.”

Judge Tynan asks, “I’m curious. Why is that?”  Watters responds, "It would be pushing heat back into the structure and back onto firefighters."

“The only communications I listened to ... (was) when I was in the hospital. ... Guys (firefighters) brought me an audio on YouTube. ... They said, listen to this.” ... “Only going to hear Captain on the roof, Battalion chief and I.”

Re asks about (water?) pressure.  The hill hydrant is (?) 300 lbs.  That hydrant is connected to the fire engine and the fire engine to hose.  The fire engine can get rid of that pressure.

D Re: Did any hose go up to the roof?
CW: I’m not sure.
D Re: Half of the attack on the roof and half on (the? underside?)?
CW: Yes.
D Re: There was a little bit of failure communicating?
CW: I wouldn’t say that.
D Re: There was some disconnect going between the group on the roof and the (truck?)?
CW: I don’t think so.
D Re: Did you hear anything about requests for more people?
CW: I’m not sure.  ... There could be.

Witness doesn’t know anything about other requests for more firefighters and another (engine?). A question about a stranger who took film.  A question about water streaming down walls.

CW: The only water I’m aware (of) was water they sprayed inside the house. 

The opened a small hose onto ....

D Re: You didn’t see water coming down a wall near the door?
(miss answer)

Re asks about the probing tool to take down the ceiling.  It takes more effort to pull down the ceiling when the poles are shorter.

Re: How long is the longer pole .. (14 ft?)?
CW: How long? I’m not sure.
Re asks about firefighters punching the ceiling and getting weary.
CW: Yes. (You?) can get tired. Very demanding operation.

Question about pulling a joist.
CW: You’re not going to pull it.
D Re: Isn’t it a fact that they didn’t get the normal type of debris? ... Are you aware of other (stus? Stuff?) where they were not getting down the normal debris?

Cross ends and Carney performs redirect.

I believe Judge Tynan asks Carney in a joking manner, “Do you feel Ms. Young is not up to the task?

We have to interrupt the prelim for a hearing in another matter.  Becker momentarily takes a seat in the gallery. Judge Tynan addresses a defendant before him. “Have a seat in the Richard Ramirez Memorial Chair.” The other hearing is quickly over and we go back to the prelim.

Carney asks the witness to describe the “seat of the fire.” 
SC: Is the seat of the fire something that can change?
CW: Yes.
SC: Or (direct?) it’s natural course?
CW: Yes.
SC: Can you determine how a fire is moving?
CW: Fire was moving south and moving east. ... (It) then moved across from west to east in the glass. ... Fire was along the wall, south, moving west to east.
SC: Towards the glass doors on the outside on the balcony?
CW: Correct.

Question about the imaging camera.
CW: It shows a temperature reading (or a red image). ... It will give you a different shade of gray as it gets hotter it gets white.  ... It’s also used to find (people) when someone’s down.

Question about venting a structure. First, open an exploratory hole, then open larger holes.  The hole can draw fire toward it. To control a fire, draw it towards an oxygen source.

A fire engine will step down the pressure from a fire hydrant.  They have the ability to alleviate pressure from a fire hydrant. Some older (engines?) don’t have the ability to do that. (They) use a pressure relief valve.  There is coordination between the hose puller and the hose holder.  It’s standard procedure not to direct water down inside a house.  If a hose is used on the roof of a house, it will depend on the way the wind is blowing.  If they do, it’s used to create a mist.  They would use a 1-inch hose line.  It’s one of the lighter hoses he would use.

Counsel and the court discuss the available schedule for the rest of the week and next week. Friday afternoon court is closed.    Tomorrow afternoon looks to be the next date, then return on Monday.  And that’s it for the morning session.

1:30 PM

Back inside Judge Tynan’s courtroom.  Detective Stearns sits in the extra chairs in the well.  A gentleman brings Stearns an evidence envelope package.  DDA Carney goes over documents with his next witness.  Yesterday, when Judge Tynan asked counsel, “So it’s Carney and Young?” I believe DDA Frances Young replied, “I prefer to think of it as the other way around.”

It’s obvious from the conversations I overhear that the staff in Dept. 42 really like working with Judge Tynan.  The AP reporter returns.

Works for the City of Los Angeles in the Dept. of Building & Safety for 12 years.  He’s a building mechanical inspector. He is assigned a specific area, Hollywood Hills above the Sunset Strip.

From 2009 to 2011 he reviewed the construction of the home. He performs 12-15 inspections a day for the last 12 years.  He works 250 days a year.  As part of his training he is familiar with the Building and Safety Code.  International building codes are mentioned. He had departmental in-house training through all different trades.  The State adopts the building code then the city adopts that code. I believe the witness states that the International Standard of Building Codes is used.

He became involved in the inspection of this house from the very beginning of construction.  Bescos discusses the process to build a home. Explains how a builder uses an online system to set up an appointment for an inspection.  Within 24 hours, someone responds to that request. That gives the customer a date of inspection. The customer is given a two hour window on that date when the inspector will arrive.

He was the primary inspector on this build.  There is a different (hillside?) grading inspector and a fire sprinkler inspector. I believe he states that he covers electrical, plumbing, HVAC and building.  The home was 12,000 sq ft and three stories. Two stories were below street level and one story at street level.

People’s exhibit #4, view of the house.  The middle and bottom floors were constructed of concrete and rebar. The top floor was steel and wood frame.  He started the inspection. The construction started with friction piles.  Describes how the lower floors were constructed and a rebar cage.

Judge Tynan asks about the building structure. The main piles that supported the structure in the hillside are discussed.  Re objects to the line of questioning.

Early in the construction, Bescos was in the general area of the home when he stopped by the property and found that a Deputy Inspector was not present on one day of pouring the piles.  He stopped construction on that date.

For a concrete pour that is greater than 2500 to 3000 PSI, a Deputy Inspector that is licensed by the City of Los Angeles must be present. The builder/homeowner must pay for that deputy inspector to be on site during the pour. The Deputy Inspector who was supposed to be present was Mike Rosenthal, or his company sent someone out.  Bescos was driving down Sunset and saw the concrete.  Deputy Inspector required to (phone in ahead of time?).  When Bescos stopped at the job site there was no Deputy Inspector.

Re: Objection! Relevance!
(I believe the objection is over ruled.)

Bescos believes this was the only surprise inspection he did on this property.  He shut down the job site at some consequence to the owner.  Witness identifies the defendant. The crew stopped working and he sent the cement trucks away.  Bescos doesn’t know if it cost the defendant.  There was one truck unloading and one truck waiting to load.  Describes the load of cement per truck. 

Bescos spoke to Mr. Becker that day.  Becker then came into the Dept’s offices.  Special testing had to be done to ensure the samples met specifications.  Bescos dealt primarily with Mr. Becker.  This was not a scheduled inspection. He not normally conduct surprise inspections. To his knowledge, this was the only surprise inspection.

The construction proceeded from bottom to top.  The floors were finished in that order. The final certification of occupancy was issued in February 2011.  Witness agrees that February 13th, 2011 sounds about right.

Bescos is not certain how many times he visited the job site.  He visited approximately once a week and that varied throughout the construction process.  He believes Mr. Becker was the owner and the architect. Plans were submitted. A copy of the plans was kept on site, on the property.  I believe he states that is the builder/owner’s responsibility. 

Bescos states you can be an owner/builder. You don’t have to be an architect. In California, you have to have an architect or civil engineer stamp the plans.  I believe the witness states that (Keeter Alberi?) structural engineers stamped the plans.  That only covers the structural element. They would not approve appliances, fireplaces.

Bescos was at the site the morning of the next day after the fire. The next time he went was with the police department; he’s not sure of the date.  He went to determine if there were areas in violation.

People’s exhibit 35, one of the pages of the building plans.  It’s the main floor. Bescos circled the fireplace on the plans for a UL approved gas appliance.  There were no other indications of fireplaces on the plans.  In August, the summer of 2010, he had a conversation with Becker about fireplace plans. Bescos testifies, "He told me he wasn’t going to install it."

They joked that it was a requirement up here in the Hollywood Hills and he circled the fireplace on the plans.  The nature of the jest was, most homes have multiple fireplaces.  To Besco’s knowledge, based on the building plans there and conversations with Becker there were no plans to have a fireplace.

Besco describes what “UL” testing certification is. “CSA” testing is also accepted.

Besco was called by a deputy (?) about the fire. His answer was, there was no fireplace, because he remembered that there was no fireplace in the building. Judge Tynan asks the witness if he ever saw a fireplace in the house.

November 2010 was the last time he was in the house.  To issue a certification of occupancy, he had to get the grading, fire sprinklers and building and safety to sign off.  So his job was done. He was waiting for other inspectors to sign off.  When he asked about the fireplace, in August, they were constructing drywall, framing and electrical. He does not remember when the top floor was poured. 

His inspection notes are reviewed. It's a computer print out of inspections under that permit number.  There are questions about how his notes are generated.  Bescos states, “At each job I type in what I did, what got approved and what didn’t.” In reviewing the reports, July 16th, the middle floor..  His notes are made at the end of the day or the next morning. The department relies on the notes as a record of what happened as far as inspection.  His notes are uploaded from his laptop to the department’s main frame.

In the well of the court, Detective Stearns is very sad looking at the moment. His right elbow is resting on the arm of the chair and his hand is over his mouth.

SC: How many times (were you) out to the home between the first floor concrete was poured and the last, final inspection?
BB: Four or five.

Other inspectors who went to the home are reviewed. On November 30th, there are numerous entries on the report. There is a computer glitch in the program, so the  department employees tend not to say partial approval until the final approval.

September 30th, final approval on plumbing and HVAC. On July 30th, there was an inspection.  Approved partial wood framing Gave the okay to wrap the outside of the house. Other dates in July were to pour a floor and framing. Some of the exterior was redwood siding.  At no time during the inspection did he see a fireplace. But he did see them installed after the fire.

People’s exhibit 12, large, 15 foot fireplace built into the wall.  The fireplace was made out of two by fours and drywall. Venting was via an appliance vent.  If Bescos had seen this at any time, it would have been a significant violation.  First, it was a non-tested appliance built on site. It would have needed a plan check. Second, there is no separation of the wood from the flame. Venting to take out carbon monoxide not to code. The wiring was concealed and not to code.  All of it was wood frame, like a building for a house.

The distance between the valve box and the wood was a couple of inches. The top of the alcove the fireplace was recessed into was a flat drywall surface. The venting used behind the drywall was not the proper type venting. Bescos doesn’t know if the ventilation would be adequate. It’s not in compliance with code.  Bescos lists the numerous non-compliance issues with the venting.

The wiring. An extension cord was hidden in the wall. Not everything was grounded. Vents were connected in an improper manner. Some vents were backwards and of mixed use type. Bescos believes there were three other fire places installed in the home.

People’s exhibit 22, a bathroom with a small fireplace built into a wall next to a triangle bathtub.  This fireplace was constructed in the same way as the 15 foot fireplace in the main room of the home. He looked in the wall behind...

D Re: Objection! Irrelevant!
(S.C.) I think your honor will see that there is a pattern throughout the house to show course of conduct.
JT: Over ruled!

There were extension cords concealed in the wall. Outlets laid on top of bare wood. Combustibles next to a valve box. Venting not to code. The next photo is the large living room fireplace.

Bescos was present (when the walls were opened?).  Saw the same thing with other fireplaces installed in the residence. Extension cords concealed in walls. Evidence of scorching. Drywall was affixed to wood.

New photo of lowest floor, and another fireplace.  The vent for this fireplace was in a concealed space and vented back into the room. The vent pipe was a single 4” pipe.  It was a double walled vent, allowed to be concealed. Opened up the backside of the fireplace. The carbon monoxide vented back into the bedroom.  Again, there was scorching around the firebox in this equipment, similar to what he had seen in the other fireplaces.

People’s exhibit 31.  The way they cut the extension cord and taped it together is a violation.

Back to the 15 foot fire trough/pit. The valve box, on it, it says, ‘six inches to combustibles.’  Above the box, he saw scorching. The drywall had been burnt through and the wood charred.

Judge Tynan then addresses the room, referring to his court reporter.  “I’m getting dirty looks. ... Take a break.”  The court reporter responds, “I’m not giving dirty looks!”  Judge Tynan is playfully insistent.  “I can tell when you’re giving me a dirty look. ... Even when you’re looking down.”

The afternoon break is called. 

My notes are not clear here, but I remember the conversation.  There is a discussion about ‘pergola’ and a photo of a pergola that was described yesterday. Judge Tynan states that his wife knew what it was. The court reporter told Judge Tynan, “I described it to you yesterday.”

Back on the record.
The 15 foot fire trough/pit. Bescos produced a report as to that particular appliance.  There were violations...

D Re: Objection!

I believe Carney responds that the standard here is gross negligence. I believe it’s Re who states, “I’m at a loss to determine what type of expert...”

DDA Carney asks several questions of the witness to establish a foundation for the witness to give the opinion. Bescos was a general contractor for 20 years. He built single family homes, and new homes from scratch.

JT: I’m inclined to let this in. ... 10-20 years as a contractor, ...seems he has a good working knowledge.

The testimony goes to the weight and not admissibility.

Bescos would describe the violations as “grave.”  They are not trivial violations, and he would take them very seriously.  After the violations were noticed, he wrote an order to comply with code standards.  The fireplace on the main floor was changed when the house was rebuilt/repaired.  Photos of the new fireplace are shown.  The approved, newly installed appliance was $30,000.00, verses the original cost of the 15 ft trough of $3,450.00.

Re argues that what Becker did after the fire is irrelevant. Judge Tynan disagrees.  After Becker obtained the permits a new fireplace was approved. Sometime after the fire, all of the prior installed fireplaces were removed and only one fireplace was approved.  A new photo.

I believe it’s Carney who asks, ‘May I approach the witness?’ I believe it’s Judge Tynan who states, “Some judges take that very seriously, but then they weren’t appointed by Jerry Brown.”  (Judge Tynan was appointed by Governor Brown back in 1981.)

The new fireplace came with a testing labs certification and instructions. Bescos is familiar with this type of fireplace. It’s constructed of non-combustible materials, and designed to vent outside the house.  It has a double walled vent, hood and sealed front.  California does not allow an open fireplace.  It must have a glass door or front.  There was a blower that aided ventilation.

Bescos is familiar with a bio-fuel fireplace.  It’s a gel of ethanol that’s lit in a metal fixture with a flame until the gel runs out.  A gel fireplace only has a European union approval.

Bescos goes over more violations in his report. Becker failed to acquire certain permits and approval.  Bescos found things in the house changed after his inspection.

Re: Objection! Relevance.
I believe Carney responds that it’s relevant to the defendant’s state of mind to disregard them.
JT: Objection over ruled. His attitude to building codes is something the prosecution has a right (to explore).

The stairway going downstairs to the lower floors, the railing was removed.  Fire sprinklers were removed. The maid’s quarters had a kitchen when prior, during inspection, it only had a bar.  A doorway was removed.  Bescos outlines the requirements for stairways and railings. A specific wall is required over 30.”  After post inspection the wall was removed.  The fire department requires sprinklers under decks. They were removed. During construction, Becker forgot to put them inside the cement decks. He didn’t like them on wood decking.  Regarding the removed door. It there’s no doorway, it’s considered to be a rec-room and occupancy numbers are different.

A door was removed and then walled up. You had to go out on the deck to enter the room.  A pool alarm on the deck was needed to protect access.  Post fire, there were no door alarms or pool alarms. 

In Bescos discussions with Becker, he seemed to be knowledgeable of building codes. In a discussion with Becker about venting, Becker got information from ‘code check.’  To Bescos, it seemed Becker was resistant to building codes.   When Becker built homes in Germany, he was totally in charge of those projects.  Becker was “acting as the architect.”  In the conversations Bescos had with Becker, he wasn’t used to having a building inspector check is work.

Bescos told Becker they didn’t care about the architect, they only care about the engineer, because he’s the one who signs off on the project.  He saw Becker with a code check book.  November 30th (2010) was the last time he walked through the house. 

Detective Stearns leans in and says something to Carney.

Police or firefighters removed a wall behind the fireplace. And this is the same room where the door was removed.  Inside, a wall had been finished and painted. It looked like the fireplace had been installed over that finished wall.

Direct is finished.

There is a brief discussion as to Judge Tynan’s regular calendar tomorrow and when they might pick up the preliminary hearing again.

Cross Examination
Bescos states he would visit 14-15 houses a day. The inspections would be about 20 minutes per job.  Questions about his job responsibilities.

There were areas where Bescos told Becker to change things and he did.  Bescos believes he talked to Becker on the day he stopped construction over the concrete pour.

Bescos’s feels the interim inspections are more important than the final inspection. This is before various things are covered up. Bescos’s doesn’t remember telling the deputy district attorney the final inspection is “no big deal.”

Re: Did you tell the DA home inspection is “no big deal?”
BB: It’s not a Macy’s.
Re: ... The residential building code ... is based on .. .what’s required for (electrical?) commercial buildings?
BB: I do not ever remember saying that.
Re: Did you ever tell the DA, you told homeowners there are occasions where you tell homeowners to keep things up to code, until after the inspection?
BB: I don’t remember ever telling anyone (that) advice.
Re: There are times you’ve taken, kept hand written notes?
BB: (I) do that in (the) file, ... at the next location. ...written on paper, sometimes on back of permit.

At some point those notes are put into the computer program. He’s never tried to change computer records. The program used is PCIS. He can correct before he closes the program, but he’s never tried afterwards.

Re: Did you have a conversation with Becker about no fireplaces on October?
BB: I believe it was earlier, in August.
Re: Did you make any notes, anywhere, that Mr. Becker was not going to install a fireplace ... (that) was after the fire?
BB: Yes.

Defense Exhibit A.  Photograph of the living room area where the 15’ “trough” would be installed.  The photo is the raw framing. At the bottom, there is a yellow flexible line visible.  Bescos describes the photo is before drywall has been put up and that the yellow line is a gas line.  The gas line came into the house from the street on the north side into the kitchen area.  Bescos states he never saw that yellow gas pipeline sticking out of the floor until after the fire.

To be continued in Gerhard Becker Preliminary Hearing, Part III...