Building Owner Gets Diversion in Case of Blaze That Injured Firefighters

Firefighters Extinguishing House Fire.

Photo: Getty Images

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Over the objection of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, a building owner charged in connection with a massive fire and explosion in the downtown Los Angeles Toy District that injured a dozen firefighters was allowed today to enter a two-year diversion program that could result in the case against him eventually being dismissed.

 ``We are pleased that the court's decision today will ultimately result in the dismissal of all of the charges filed by the city attorney in this case against Steve Lee, and that Mr. Lee will be deemed by law to have never been charged,'' Lee's attorney, Blair Berk, said in a statement. ``The exhaustive federal investigation of the tragic fire objectively concluded that the cause was accidental, and there was no finding of any wrongdoing by Mr. Lee or his companies. Mr. Lee remains entirely committed to building a safe and supportive Los Angeles.''

City Attorney Mike Feuer countered in a statement that his office ``objected to diversion based on the severity of the fire and the alleged failure of the defendant to take steps which could have mitigated the extent of the blaze, and the injuries suffered by 12 L.A. firefighters.''

The terms of the diversion, granted by Superior Court Commissioner H. Elizabeth Harris, include payment by Lee of more than $15,000 in investigative costs, maintaining the property in compliance with all relevant fire and building codes and arranging for training by the Los Angeles City Fire Department about the maintenance of fire systems, according to the City Attorney's Office.

Lee, now 58, was among the owners and operators of four downtown Los Angeles buildings and three businesses who were charged in 2020 for alleged fire code and safety violations after investigations by the LAFD and its Arson Unit, the Los Angeles Police Department and the city's Department of Building and Safety following the massive May 16, 2020, blaze.

Two businesses -- Smoke Tokes and Green Buddha -- agreed to a November 2020 plea deal in which they were required to pay $139,000 each in investigative costs and serve three years of summary probation, according to Rob Wilcox, the director of community engagement and outreach for the City Attorney's Office.

The businesses cannot occupy the property and must relinquish the lease, Wilcox said at the time.

Charges against two people, Shafaq Sattar and Raheela Lakhanny, were dismissed in light of the corporate pleas, Wilcox said.

The businesses were among those housed in the building owned by Lee at 327 Boyd St., where the fire allegedly started before spreading to an adjacent building, according to a statement released in 2020 by the City Attorney's Office.

Fire crews were inside the building when a ``significant explosion'' shook the neighborhood around Smoke Tokes Warehouse Distributor, ``a supplier for those who make butane honey oil,'' LAFD Capt. Erik Scott said soon afterward.

In a video posted several days later on YouTube, LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas said firefighters had noticed that conditions were ``rapidly deteriorating'' and began an immediate retreat to the street.

``During the transition out of the building and off the roof, 11 firefighters and the aerial ladder of Truck 9 were engulfed by a massive fireball that stretched entirely across Boyd Street, scorching the cab of Truck 9,'' Terrazas said. 

``This prompted a mayday call to be broadcast, causing dozens of firefighters to come to the aid of their fallen colleagues.''

A 12th firefighter was also taken to the hospital, with more than 230 firefighters eventually responding to the blaze that took 1 hour and 42 minutes to extinguish, Terrazas said.

At least one of the firefighters remained hospitalized until July, according to the LAFD.

The City Attorney's Office alleged in 2020 that illegally stored hazardous materials were found in the building and three other properties owned by Lee, with the most egregious violations allegedly occurring at the property where the fire began.

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