N.Y. Building Manager, Owner Found Guilty in Firefighter's Deaths

An apartment building manager and the company that owns the building were found guilty Wednesday of criminally negligent homicide for letting tenants build a maze of illegal walls that forced two firefighters to jump to their deaths to escape a blaze.

Cesar Rios, the building's manager, was acquitted on a manslaughter charge that could have sent him to prison for 15 years. Rios and the company were also found guilty of reckless endangerment.

Rios, who formerly owned the building, faces up to four years in prison on the criminally negligent homicide charge and a year on the reckless endangerment charge. The limited liability company could be fined up to $15,000.

Six firefighters were trapped in the building while fighting a January 2005 blaze. Two of them, Lt. Curtis Meyran and firefighter John Bellew, died after jumping from a fourth-floor window.

Firefighters testified during the trial that the walls made the building a deathtrap. Prosecutors argued that Rios and the company should have stopped construction and better watched over the buildings to ensure no illegal activity was taking place.

A separate jury last week acquitted two tenants of similar charges, saying the blame was on the management. Tenants Caridad Coste and Rafael Castillo were accused of illegally subdividing their apartments to make bedrooms for renters.

The blaze, sparked by a faulty electrical cord, started in Castillo's third-floor apartment.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said he hoped Wednesday's verdict "offers some comfort" to Meyran's and Bellew's families, who were dismayed by the tenants' acquittals.

Bellew's widow, Eileen, told reporters she was "satisfied" with Rios' conviction but still "shocked, saddened and disappointed ... to know that two people who are responsible for John's death will not be punished."

Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson added: "It is most appropriate that those who, through their greed, caused this needless suffering receive significant punishment."

Steve Cassidy, union president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, said the ruling, "although only a slap on the wrist, sends a message to all the unscrupulous landlords in New York."