SCHENECTADY — The former city housing inspector acquitted of charges in a fatal 2015 Jay Street apartment building fire was sentenced to four months in jail Tuesday for lying on his job application.
Judge Matthew Sypniewski imposed the sentence on Kenneth Tyree, saying Tyree made the choice to lie when he denied having any prior convictions.
Sypniewski said the city and the public needed to know his past, especially a prior burglary conviction from the early 1980s.
“He was willing to place his interests in getting [the job] above all else, and for that, there must be some consequence,” Sypniewski said.
Convicted of offering a false instrument for filing, Tyree faced up to four years in state prison. Sypniewski settled on the four-month sentence, saying a precedent must be set for those who might make a similar choice in the future.
Prosecutors asked for an undetermined local jail sentence, drawing a line of consequences from Tyree’s lie to his inspection of 104 Jay St. the day before the fire, while Tyree’s defense asked for straight probation or weekends in jail.
Tyree, 54, inspected 104 Jay St. the day before the massive March 6, 2015 fire that killed four, injured dozens of others and destroyed two large buildings.
He was accused at trial of failing to do anything about the dangers he saw, or should have seen, during the inspection.
The trial focused on the building’s fire alarm box and what Tyree saw when he looked at it during his inspection. Tyree said he saw only green lights. Prosecutor Michael DeMatteo argued that indicators on the alarm box’s LCD screen, including illuminated red and yellow lights, should have alerted anyone, no matter their training, to investigate further.
Prosecutors also argued the building lacked fire doors, which allowed the fire to spread quickly.
The fire claimed the lives of residents Harry Simpson, 59; Robert Thomas, 31; Jermaine Allen, 37; and Berenices Suarez, 33.
Tyree’s attorney, Mark Gaylord, argued Tyree was made a scapegoat in the case, that he hadn’t been trained to spot the fire alarm system problems that were present. He did nothing but his job that day, Gaylord argued.
Gaylord continued those arguments at sentencing Tuesday. He told the judge that Tyree’s job application only came to light “when it became time to find a scapegoat.”
“That’s when the fingers started pointing at him and that’s when it came time to find out what crimes we can charge Mr. Tyree with,” Gaylord said.
Tyree’s qualifications for the job were fine and Gaylord argued his client performed the job well, even getting a promotion after the fire and even in light of brief training in “that dysfunctional building department of theirs.”
Tyree was terminated after his arrest last year and both the grand jury that investigated the case and the state Comptroller’s Office have since issued critical reports on the building inspector’s office as it existed at the time. Several steps and new leadership have since been taken to improve it.
Gaylord acknowledged Tyree had problems when he was 20 years old, 30 years ago. But he also said Tyree has changed.
“He’s done what you encourage, I’m sure, every defendant that comse before you to do, to turn your life around and Mr. Tyree did that,” Gaylord said.
Even after his termination from the city, Tyree found another job, Gaylord said.
Tyree did not give a statement himself.
Prosecutor Michael DeMatteo pushed for jail time, arguing that if Tyree had not lied on his job application, the city likely would have not hired him and someone else would have been at 104 Jay St. to inspect it.
“This case led to one of the most tragic unintended consequences,” DeMatteo said. “The defendant’s deliberate misrepresentation on his application started in motion a chain of events that led him to inspecting 104 Jay St. on March 5, , hours before one of the biggest fires in Schenectady claimed four lives.”
Tyree’s sentencing followed the sentencing last month of the 104 Jay St. building manager Jason Sacks. Sacks pleaded guilty earlier to four counts of criminally negligent homicide and received 1 to 3 years in state prison.
Sacks admitted he was responsible for the conditions at 104 Jay St., chief among them the state of the fire alarm system.
Tyree was given a similar offer pre-trial that would have resulted in a one-year sentence. Instead, he rejected that and went to trial.
Unlike the sentencing of Tyree’s one-time co-defendant Jason Sacks, Tyree’s sentencing included no victim impact statements. A number of victims and family members still attended, including Michael Roberson, the brother of one of the victims, Robert Thomas, 31.
Afterward, Roberson said he didn’t buy the defense assertion that Tyree had changed from his younger days.
“The felony was from 30 years ago, but you recently lied, so that shows what growth of your character? None,” Roberson said. “And the fact that you lied to an administration to achieve employment, that supersedes more than just your personal interests. That’s the lives of my brother, Jermaine Allen, Berenices Suarez and Harry Simpson and all the individuals who have been affected by this and will continue to be affected by this.”
After the judge pronounced sentence, Tyree was handcuffed and led off to begin serving his jail term.
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