SCHENECTADY – Two men are facing manslaughter and other charges, accused of actions that led to the deaths of four people in a deadly apartment fire on Jay Street in 2015.
One was a city code inspector who checked the building the day before the March 6, 2015, blaze. The other was the building manager for 104 Jay St., the structure in which the fire began.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said Thursday the fire alarm and smoke detection system at 104 Jay St. hadn’t worked for at least five weeks prior to the fire.
Building manager Jason Sacks allowed the system to stop working, canceled an alarm monitoring service and allowed the building to operate without required fire doors, according to the indictment filed against him.
Code inspector Kenneth Tyree then saw, or should have seen, the inoperable alarm system during his March 5, 2015 inspection, but he failed to evacuate the building or call for a “fire watch” at the building, during which someone is constantly monitoring the structure for fire danger. He also later lied to investigators when he told them the alarm system was operational when he inspected it, prosecutors allege.
The early morning blaze nearly two years ago killed four, hospitalized seven and displaced about 60 other residents, while destroying the 104 Jay St. building and the neighboring 100-102 Jay St. structures.
Investigators determined an unattended candle or cigarette sparked the blaze, but the investigation probed the building’s safety and code inspection efforts leading up to the fire.
That investigation concluded fire alarms and smoke detectors in 104 Jay St. hadn’t been operational since Jan. 22, 2015, leaving those sleeping in the building with no warning, Carney said.
A Schenectady County grand jury concluded the reckless or negligent actions of both men — or the lack of appropriate actions — warranted charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide against each. They face a host of other related accusations, as well.
In addition to allowing people to live in the structure without a functioning fire detection system, Sacks participated directly in creating and permitting building conditions that led to the rapid spread of the fire, “thus greatly escalating the risks to the trapped victims,” Carney said.
Tyree, Carney said, “failed in performing the most basic duty of code enforcement,” which is ensuring the building had a functional safety system.
“If he inspected the fire alarm panel on that date as he claims, he would have discovered that it was non-operational, and he failed to take any corrective actions to safeguard the building’s residents,” Carney told reporters at a Thursday press conference to announce the investigation’s findings so far.
The grand jury’s investigation continues, Carney said. Asked if the probe could produce a report offering findings on problems and fixes in the city codes department, Carney said that is a possibility. He said the department received a fax in October 2014 from the monitoring service for the 104 Jay St. structure, informing the department that the service had been canceled. But the codes department took no action.
Carney announced the indictments alongside Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford, Fire Chief Ray Senecal, members of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Carney’s own staff. Each agency worked on the case over the past two years.
Sacks and Tyree both pleaded not guilty in court Thursday.
If convicted, the men face up to 5 to 15 years in state prison.
Sacks, 39, of Sanders Avenue, Scotia, is accused of failing to maintain the fire detection system at 104 Jay St. from Oct. 20, 2014, to the date of the fire, tampering with or disturbing the required detection and alarm system while the system was not being monitored and allowing the building to operate with no fire doors in hallway stairwells.
The lack of fire doors allowed the fire to spread quickly upward from its fourth-floor origin, Carney said.
Tyree, who had been employed by the city as of Tuesday, has been suspended without pay, and the city is moving to terminate him, according to Mayor Gary McCarthy.
Tyree, 53, of Sheridan Village, Schenectady, is accused of misrepresenting the condition of the fire alarm system. Had he properly reacted to what investigators believe he saw, Carney said, he would have ordered the evacuation or a fire watch. He is also accused of lying on his employment application in 2013.
Either Tyree performed a faulty inspection or no inspection, Carney said. Either is possible, he said.
“He just didn’t do his job,” Carney said. “If Mr. Tyree had done his job, our theory is that this would not have happened.”
In court, Sacks and Tyree appeared individually, both in orange jail clothing. Sacks had no discernible reaction during the arraignment. He already had an attorney, Adam Parisi.
Kenneth M. Tyree, left, and Jason Sacks.
Judge Matthew Sypniewski set bond for Sacks at $40,000, which Sacks later posted.
Tyree, however, appeared surprised in court after learning of the charges. He had no attorney; a public defender, Sven Paul, stood in for the arraignment.
Paul appeared to realize his client’s surprise, pointing out that a chair was right behind him if he needed it.
Tyree indicated he would get his own attorney. He is to return to court Friday and will remain in custody until then.
Tyree’s fiancee attended the proceedings, driving from Connecticut, she said afterward. She identified herself only as Ms. Fox.
“It’s a shock” she said. “We’ll see what happens. It’s in God’s hands.”
Killed in the fire were Harry Simpson, 59; Robert Thomas, 31; Jermaine Allen, 37; and Berenices Suarez, 33.
Many of those injured and the estates of those killed have filed lawsuits against the building owner, Ted Gounaris Inc. Many have also filed notices of claim for possible lawsuits against the city. None, however, filed those lawsuits before a deadline for such filings passed.
Asked about Thursday’s developments, Paul Delorenzo, the attorney representing Suarez’ estate and one of those injured, said he is investigating whether to attempt a lawsuit now against the city and whether the new information makes a suit even possible. None of the information released Thursday was available previously, either publicly or to attorneys, Delorenzo said.
As for Suarez’ family, Delorenzo spoke with them after the indictment announcements.
“They were hoping it didn’t come down to someone being so criminally negligent that would have caused the death of their loved one,” Delorenzo said. “But it did go in that direction, and they’re shocked and they’re saddened by it.”