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Jury selection begins today in Jay Street fire case

Jury selection begins today in Jay Street fire case

Trial expected to last 4 to 6 weeks, attorneys say
Jury selection begins today in Jay Street fire case
Kenneth Tyree appears in court in March with his attorney, Sven Paul.
Photographer: Steven Cook

SCHENECTADY — A former city building inspector is scheduled to stand trial starting Monday, accused of failing in his job to keep residents safe, leading to four deaths and dozens of injuries.

While prosecutors said they plan to lay out all their evidence against Kenneth Tyree during the trial Tyree's attorney said he believes a jury will return a verdict in his client's favor, once they hear all the facts surrounding the accidental 2015 Jay Street fire and the events preceding it.

The trial is set to begin with jury selection Monday in Schenectady County Court. Judge Matthew Sypniewski is presiding.

Tyree, 53, of Schenectady, faces four counts each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide — one for each of the four people who died in the massive blaze. He also faces other charges.

He faces 5 to 15 years in state prison, if convicted. He previously rejected a plea offer that would have resulted in a year in jail. He maintains his innocence. 

The trial is expected to last four to six weeks, attorneys said.

Prosecutor Michael DeMatteo would not comment on the case Friday. Tyree's attorney Mark Gaylord, repeated earlier defense assertions that Tyree lacked proper training to inspect the Jay Street building's fire alarm system.

"But, despite his lack of training, the facts will show he did exactly what was asked of him that day, that he did a thorough inspection of the building — every apartment in the building," Gaylord said.

Tyree is accused of failing to act on dangers he observed when he inspected the structure at 104 Jay St., an inspection that occurred the day before a deadly March 6, 2015, fire destroyed the structure.

Prosecutors have said signs of a malfunction in the fire alarm box, as well as Tyree's observations about fire doors, showed conscious disregard for the risks posed and that Tyree lied when he said he saw indications that the system was operational. 

An inoperable fire alarm alone, they say, should have resulted in an evacuation or "fire watch," and prosecutors believe the system hadn't been operational for more than a month before the fire.

If Tyree had inspected the system as he claimed, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney has argued, he would have discovered it to be inoperable. Either he performed a faulty inspection or no inspection, Carney said.

Tyree described in a statement to investigators how he and the Jay Street building's manager, Jason Sacks, toured the building together for the inspection. He also told investigators he checked the alarm box and "all was good to my knowledge," according to the previously filed statement.

For his part, Sacks pleaded guilty last month to four counts of criminally negligent homicide in connection with the fire. He is to be sentenced to 1 to 3 years in state prison and must testify against Tyree, as part of his plea agreement.

Sacks, 39, was accused of failing to maintain the fire-detection system at 104 Jay St. from Oct. 20, 2014, to the date of the March 6, 2015, fire. He was also accused of tampering with the system and allowing the building to operate with no fire doors in hallway stairwells.

Sacks participated directly in creating and permitting building conditions that led to the rapid spread of the fire, Carney has said previously, "thus greatly escalating the risks to the trapped victims."

Aside from the allegations over the state of the alarm box, prosecutors have said Tyree's timeline was off. He estimated in his statement that the inspection took from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but city street cameras captured images of Tyree and Sacks at a Crane Street property at about noon that day.

The investigation concluded fire alarms and smoke detectors in 104 Jay St. hadn't been operational since Jan. 22, 2015 — about six weeks before the blaze — leaving those sleeping in the building with no warning, Carney has said. Both Tyree and Sacks were indicted in March 2017.

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's owner, Ted Gounaris Inc. Many have also filed notices of claim for possible lawsuits against the city, but no lawsuit was filed before the standard deadline.

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