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Jury hears closing arguments in Jay Street fire case

Jury hears closing arguments in Jay Street fire case

Tyree lawyer: 'The whole prosecution relates to him doing his job'
Jury hears closing arguments in Jay Street fire case
Attorney Mark Gaylord pats former city housing inspector Kenneth Tyree on the back Monday.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

SCHENECTADY — A Schenectady County jury heard differing accounts Monday about former city housing inspector Kenneth Tyree and his inspection of 104 Jay St. the day before a deadly fire there.

His attorney, Mark Gaylord, portrayed Tyree as a hard worker — a city employee who inspected the building and reported what he saw to his supervisor.

Prosecutor Michael DeMatteo said the work Tyree performed that day, or more specifically the lack of effort he put into inspecting the building and its fire alarm panel, directly led to the deaths of four people. 

The jury will begin its work Tuesday to decide which version is accurate, and whether Tyree's actions amount to manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide or an acquittal.

Monday's closing arguments were made on the third anniversary of Tyree's inspection of the 104 Jay St. apartment building. Tuesday is the third anniversary of the fire.

Tyree is accused of failing to do anything about the dangers he saw, or should have seen, during his March 5, 2015, inspection of the building, which was destroyed in the blaze.

The fire claimed the lives of residents Harry Simpson, 59; Robert Thomas, 31; Jermaine Allen, 37; and Berenices Suarez, 33. Dozens of others were injured.

The trial has focused on the building's fire alarm box and what Tyree saw when he looked at it during his inspection. Tyree has said he saw only green lights. Prosecutors 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.

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Gaylord argued again Monday that his client has been made a scapegoat in the incident.

Tyree did everything he was told to do that day, Gaylord argued. Inaccuracies in his statements to police have been unfairly framed as intentional deceptions. 

Gaylord further argued that Tyree knew nothing of the building's fire alarm system and had no frame of reference from which to draw a comparison.

Tyree's initial estimate for how long he spent inspecting the building — given to investigators a month after the fire — changed after investigators found surveillance footage of him inspecting another building during the time he said he was working at the Jay Street structure. But even so, Tyree was still working, his lawyer argued.

"Everything you heard about Mr. Tyree involves him doing his job," Gaylord told the jury. "The whole prosecution relates to him doing his job."

The risk of fire is ever-present, and the fact a fire happened the day after Tyree's inspection doesn't change the risk present when he left, Gaylord said.

He also argued the deaths were the result of a long list of negligent actions by others, including building manager Jason Sacks, who canceled the fire alarm monitoring contract.

Tyree went straight to his supervisor and reported what he saw, Gaylord said.

But in his closing arguments, prosecutor DeMatteo said that even if Tyree reported what he saw to his supervisor, he still didn't accurately report the state of the fire alarm panel.

Tyree also missed a host of other red flags; he learned during the inspection that residents had silenced the fire alarm, for instance, DeMatteo said.

He then misrepresented to investigators what the panel actually looked like, by saying it showed all green when it didn't, DeMatteo said.

Without a working fire alarm system and no fire doors between floors, the fire spread quickly and without warning, DeMatteo said.

The deaths and injuries suffered "were completely avoidable, if the defendant simply did his job," he told the jury.

Tests showed the alarm system, had it been operational, would have gone off before conditions became life-threatening and would have alerted all residents to get out. The alarm system at the adjoining 100 Jay St. apartment building, which was also destroyed in the fire, functioned properly and no one died in that building, DeMatteo noted.

DeMatteo also argued Tyree was trained to inspect fire alarm systems. One of the courses he'd taken to earn his inspection certification included a section on the systems, their importance and when to investigate them further. 

"It was never OK to do nothing," DeMatteo said, quoting a witness who spoke about the course, "which is exactly what the defendant did."

Prosecutors said Tyree obtained the inspection job by failing to disclose his criminal past. One of the other charges against him is that he had burglary and other convictions in the 1980s that he withheld on his job application. Gaylord argued Tyree already had the job by that point, so it wasn't a part of the hiring process.

"His actions or inactions caused four people to die because they had no warning and changed the lives of others forever," DeMatteo concluded. "He must be held responsible."

Judge Matthew Sypniewski is presiding over the trial.

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