Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
District Attorney Seth Williams announced today that a grand jury has elected not to bring criminal charges against members of the Lichtenstein family of Brooklyn, owners of a decrepit Kensington warehouse that caught fire on April 9, 2012, and led to the deaths of firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney. Williams blamed failures by several city agencies in the run-up to the fire and an inconclusive investigation into the cause of the blaze as factors in the decision.
“The grand jury, after an extensive investigation, concluded there was not sufficient evidence at this time to bring charges against anyone at this time,” said Williams. “We’re all frustrated, we wish there was something that we can do to give the firefighters and the Neary family and the Sweeney family closure...But we are bound by the law.”
Williams made a point of highlighting failures by the Department of Licenses and Inspections and other city agencies.
"Had city departments done their job, these deaths may never have occurred," said Williams.
Williams outlined a pattern of tax delinquency and negligence at properties owned by the father and son team Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein, whom he called "unscrupulous," citing a still outstanding $100,000 bill for demolition costs of the burned-out building. But Williams said that although testimony from neighbors indicated that the building was unsafe and not sealed at the time of the fire, reports filed by the Department of Licenses indicated that it had been sealed. The discrepancy made it difficult to prove that the owners had deliberately failed to seal the structure, which would have bolstered a criminal negligence charge.
A report by the grand jury also said that L&I had cited the building for past violations, but had taken only "superficial steps" to address issues at the property. Four inspectors had visited the property over the years, but each opened a case under a new ID number, apparently failing to link together past violations. After three years of citations, L&I appeared to moving to take the owners to court for the condition of the building, but the fire would destroy the structure just weeks later. Throughout this time, according to the report, L&I continued to issue permits to the Lichtenstein's and declined to elicit a $100,000 bond from them, which would have insulated the city from the costs of demolishing the vacant structure.The report also blamed the Revenue Department for not sending the property to sheriff's sale despite tens of thousands of dollars of unpaid taxes.
Williams said that L&I in particular needed reforms to prevent future tragedies.
"Licenses and Inspections...needs to have a thorough and complete review, from top to bottom," he said.
In addition to inaction on the part of the city, a fire inspector's report had only been able to confirm that the cause of the fire was one of “human origin,” but little else, including an origin point. This was important, given that Neary and Sweeney were killed in a neighboring building after a shared structural wall collapsed.
“We have to have, from the fire marshal, a cause of the fire and the origin of the fire. And in this case we do not," said Williams, who said that there were also questions about the fire department's conduct on the night of the fire.
Williams said the pattern of failure on the part of the city would have made it difficult to file criminal charges. However, he said there was still hope for lesser charges in civil court.
An official from the District Attorney’s office said the Lichtensteins did not appear before the grand jury.
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