Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gerhard Becker Preliminary Hearing: Part III

 Gerhard Becker, left with his previous counsel, Chad Lewin
(Photo credit: ABC News)

Continued from Gerhard Becker Case: Preliminary Hearing Part II...

UPDATE 1/12/14:
spelling of Captain Kevin Mulvehill's name

UPDATE 8/27/13: spelling
Thursday, November 15th, 2012
I’m inside Department 42, Judge Tynan’s courtroom.  Becker is here with a male friend, “Jay” (sp?).  Becker is not wearing a tie and he’s carrying a backpack.

Counsel are trying to work out a schedule.  It appears defense attorney Donald Re is under the weather and is too ill to continue the proceedings today.    Next Monday they might call witnesses out of order (interrupt Bescos’s testimony).  That could be Detective Stearns and Detective Thost.   Carney and Re step outside to discuss a witness testimony.

DDA Francis Young is here. She’s wearing a red jack with a red silk like blouse underneath with an longish black skirt.  The jacket has almost a chenille like quality. There is a single strand of pearls around her neck.

I overhear Re state that he’s going to spend the rest of the day in the restroom.

It’s not in my notes who asks, but I believe it’s Judge Tynan’s clerk who talks with one of us in the gallery about the female drug program that Judge Tynan oversees.  Less than 20% of the graduates fall back into drugs.  That’s very impressive.  I believe the clerk says, “To have a judge come off the bench, and give them a hug (when the graduate from the program) ... it’s the first positive role model from a male (many of these women experience).

11:07 AM

On the record. Mr. Re is ill. I believe Judge Tynan jokingly states that Mr. Re is not a young man. There are questions about returning on Monday.  After 11 AM on Monday.  Everyone is to return on Monday at 11 AM.  Re asks for Bescos to be ordered back.  He will be available after the holidays.

And that’s it for Thursday.

I have a quickly jotted note in my book that an LA County Sheriff, Francisco Gamez was arrested for murder and that DDA Paul Nunez will be handling the case. 

Monday, November 19th, 2012

8:35 AM
Inside Dept. 42.  Judge Tynan is hearing drug recovery cases, his regular calendar. There are several people in the gallery, waiting for their case to be called.

8:48 AM

Detective Greg Stearns is here. Defense attorney Donald Re is also here. I told Re I hope he’s feeling better. Two people are working in the jury box.  I believe these are representatives from the various programs that find spots/beds for defendants.

8:49 AM 
Donal Re leaves.  He returns a moment later with DDA Carney.  Carney and Stearns exit the courtroom. 

Sometime later, DDA Francis Young gave me a big smile and said hello.  Young is wearing a reddish-orange jacket with zippers and a black skirt. It looks like it might be a wool weave pattern.  Young puts up the portable screen in the gallery.

My notes don’t tell me when he arrived, but I know my friend Matthew McGough made it in time for the hearing.

10:53 AM

Becker peeks his head into Dept. 42 carrying his back pack. He quickly leaves.  He returns sometime later.

More cases continue to be called on Judge Tynan’s regular schedule.  Two defendants are brought out, handcuffed together. They are in blue pants and yellow tops, an indication they have a drug or alcohol issue. 

A wave of emotion comes over me as I listen to Judge Tynan do his best to work with the defendants that come before him. I don’t know the reason. It wasn’t anything that was specifically said that I can point to.

Judge Tynan tells a defendant, ‘Write me a thousand words on what you did and why you did it.”

11:15 AM

Judge Tynan is still hearing cases. Another defendant is brought out, but there isn’t an approved interpreter for them, so the case is held over.  The bailiff states he speaks Spanish. Becker, in a low voice says, “I speak Spanish.”

More court staff come and go. It’s a busy, busy courtroom.

11:20 AM 

Matthew gets a text he was waiting for. He can’t stay. His interview with outgoing District Attorney Steve Cooley is on. He will miss less than an hour of the preliminary hearing.

In the well of the court, counsel and Judge Tynan discuss how long they might be able to go today.  Afterwards, Carney is telling Re about another case, not arson. It’s a manslaughter case.  Now they are talking about a fireplace expert Carney is going to call as a witness. Carney says something to the effect that the fireplace expert is on the west coast and his mentor is on the east coast.  I can only hear half the conversation because Carney is speaking the loudest and he’s facing me.

Another defendant is brought out, a woman.  It’s a heartbreaking case.  While she was away from a special program on a doctor’s visit, she stopped at her mothers home. There, she found out that her nine-year-old daughter was killed in a DUI.  I believe there is discussion about putting the defendant in the “180” program.

My heart breaks for this woman.  Judge Tynan and defense counsel discuss what resources are available to get the defendant grief counseling in the jail.  More and more people have mental health and drug problems that are in custody.  Judge Tynan looks out into the gallery and states, “Well, we have members of the press here.”  When Judge Tynan’s eyes land on me, I freeze.  I don’t know if he’s expecting me to say something.  I knew that I would write about this, but I don’t have the reach of the LA Times.

11:32 AM

Carney and Re banter with Judge Tynan about how much longer Carney needs.  Carney tells the court, “Three more witnesses your honor.”

DDA Young gets some type of sweet treat from the clerk. She’s holding it in a white paper.  She shares the treat with the people’s next witness, who has not taken the stand yet.  Judge Tynan states they will discuss scheduling later and then tells Carney, “You have Ms. Young to back you up.”  Young replies, “Depending on your perspective.”

11:38 AM

On the record in the Becker case.

4. WILLIAM THOST (pronounced Fost)
Fire Investigator with the LAFD. 32.5 years with LAFD.  8.5 years as a fire investigator. He’s a sworn peace officer. 

Defense will concede Thost is a sworn officer.

Thost’s duties are to investigate the cause of fires. He’s led approximately 500 investigations and had 450 hours of education and training.  He’s previously testified as an expert.

Carney asks about this fire.  Thost states he spoke with Captain Moldanhill (sp?), the engine captain for Engine 97.  Glenn Allan was assigned to Engine 97 and worked under Captain Moldanhill’s command.

SC: Was Captain Moldanhill inside the structure, conducting firefighting?
WT: Caplain Moldanhill told me he was in the dining room area.

People’s exhibit 5, a still photo from a video taken at the scene.

Thost describes where things are outside of the scope of the photograph.

SC: Did Captain Moldanhill tell you where Glenn Allan was just prior to the collapse?
WT: Yes. ... He was back behind (a) firefighter in the photo ... left of photo where a firefighter is shining his flashlight.
SC: Was Glenn Allan standing on the floor or something else?
WT: Glenn Allan was standing on a table 18 inches high.
SC: Like a low coffee table?
WT: Yes. ... Captain Mulvehill told me there was a problem puling (down the) ceiling. ... Captain Mulvehill said (the) ceiling had colapsed on people in that area. ... He described how much of the ceiling collapsed.

The firefighters dis a quick PARM (personnel? program? accountability risk management). They determined that Glenn was missing.  Started to determine where he was standing within the collapsed debris field.  Firefighters got chainsaws and started to cut the debris away from Glenn Allen.

SC: Did Captain Mulvehill describe how he was found?
WT: He was in a seated position and bent forward ... like in a clam shell position.
SC: Did Captain Mulvehill tell you whether he had a pulse when he was found?
WT: Captain Mulvehill told me that...

The witness stops. He can’t speak. He starts to break down emotionally on the stand. His face contorts. He  tries to regain control of his emotions.

SC: Take your time.
WT: He was pulse less and breathless.

People’s exhibit 6 is presented to the witness.

WT: This is a photo of the inside of the top floor of the residence when I saw it.
SC: Is this how the area looked after the extraction efforts?
WT: Yes it is.
SC: Describe the roof structure and the various components of the dropped ceiling.

The witness also describes the vent openings above the fifteen foot fireplace.

Judge Tynan: What was the top of the fireplace made of?
WT: I believe drywall.
SC: Did you observe any fire blocking or fire stop in the space above the fireplace construction?
WT: No.

Judge Tynan asks the witness to explain fire blocking or “fire stop.”

Usually a two by four is used to create a fire stop. It’s to block the fire from moving upward.  Judge Tynan notes that a fire block doesn’t really stop it. It just slows it down.  There was no fire blocking above the fire trough.  Thost inspected the underside of the 15 foot fire pit.  Firefighters removed the front drywall from underneath the trough for inspection. Thost also looked at the fireplace from the exterior.

There is a steel column, visible from the outside, burned area of the house.  More photos of the inside of the fire pit/ trough area.

WT: Inside on the steel column, there was backer board on the column and then tile on top of the backer board.

Photos of the right side of the burner box from inside the house.

SC: What was the construction around it?
WT: It was constructed of two by four construction. ... Significant burning around the burner box. ... The fire burned completely through one two by four cross beam support for the trough. ... Based on the burn pattern, ... the fire originated at the burn box.

Appeared from the burn pattern, the fire burned from above and burned across the ceiling.

SC: The fire started in the blow out box?
WT: Below the box. ... The area of origin was area just below the blow out box ... and to the left, above the control box.

Witness is asked to describe the (second) burner box, on the left.  The burn was not as extensive as the right one but some burn took place there.

People’s Exhibit 19, the witness is asked to describe some of the burn pattern just above the control box.

WT: The only burn observed around this box at the two by four. ... Did not see it extend up the wall. ... He saw burning right above the center of the burner box. ... (Also observed) that area of drywall had been cut out to allow burn boxes to be dropped into the frame.

Thost examined other areas of the house.  People’s Exhibit’s 20 and 21, better images above the burn box.  Photo of bathroom.

D Re: Objection!  These (four other) fireplaces had nothing to do with the origin of the fire.
SC: Goes to beyond the cause and goes to continual gross negligence.
Judge Tynan: Objection over ruled! Will allow him to testify 

Judge Tynan acknowledges Re’s continuing objection to the testimony.

WT: All four other fire places exhibited similar burn patterns as (the origin of the fire).

Thost states that one bathroom fireplace, there was a small discoloring of the drywall next to the trough that was applicable to fire.

People’s Exhibit 25, fireplace in the bedroom on the middle floor.  This photo is of Thost lifting the burner trough. When he lifted the (cover/grate) Thost saw burning of the drywall paper at the burner area.

Based on his observations at the house, his opinion, based on the burn pattern, he determined the fire was caused by combustibles placed too close to the fire itself. The origin of the fire was the right burner box in the 15 foot trough/ pit, where it burned too close to the wall.

The fire began at the burner box and burned upward. As it reached the ceiling, it then moved outward through the ceiling crawl space.

SC: Did you speak to Mr. Becker?
WT: Yes.

Thost identifies Becker for the record. An interview with the defendant took place via an investigator.  Thost spoke to Becker and asked him to provide photos of the structure prior to the fire.  This happened in person, outside the house.  Thost and Becker were on the street, talking.  Becker’s email address is verified.  Investigator William Zlendick (sp?) spoke with Becker at the fire scene.  Becker believed the fire started on the top floor inside the fireplace area.  Becker drew diagrams for the fire investigators.

Another fire investigator, David Liske, interviewed Becker at LAPD.  Becker was accompanied by a Mr. Fredrickson and Jay Gottfriedson (sp?), his attorney.  A photo is introduced of all of these individuals in an interview room. Becker stated he had been an architect.

D Re: Objection!  Lay foundation!

SC: Prior to the interview, did you advise Mr. Becker if he was under arrest or free to go?
WT: Liske told him he was not under arrest; he was free to go.
SC: Was Mr. Gottfriedson also present?
WT: Yes.
SC: Did he appear to understand ...?
WT: He came to the police station on his own. He was with his attorney.

Becker was not handcuffed at any time. Investigators asked Becker about his background. He was an architect for 20 years. This was his first one in the US. He had previously built in Germany, Luxembourg, Spain.

SC: During the interview did he tell you this was his first project in the US?
WT: Yes.
SC: Did you ask him specifically about the fireplace inside the house?
WT: He said he was the one who designed the fireplace and built them because he wanted them done correctly.

Becker also provided drawings.

It’s now the lunch hour.  Testimony will continue at 10:30 AM tomorrow.
To be continued in Part IV...