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Former housing inspector cleared of major charges in fatal Jay Street fire

Former housing inspector cleared of major charges in fatal Jay Street fire

Tyree: 'Everybody knew in the city I was innocent and even the jurors'
Former housing inspector cleared of major charges in fatal Jay Street fire
Kenneth Tyree walks out of the Schenectady County Courthouse after the verdict was read Tuesday, March 6, 2018.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

SCHENECTADY — Former city housing inspector Kenneth Tyree was found not guilty Tuesday afternoon of all charges related to the deaths of four people inside 104 Jay St.

The jury found Tyree not guilty of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, making a false statement and reckless endangerment. A conviction would have carried a prison term of 5 to 15 years.

The only conviction returned by the jury against Tyree concerned his job application, finding he concealed his prior convictions from the 1980s on his 2013 job application. That charge — offering a false instrument for filing — still carries with it a maximum possible term of 16 months to four years in state prison. Sentencing is set for May 8. He remains free pending sentencing.


Tyree appeared emotional as he stood for the reading of the verdict.

Outside the courtroom he was thankful.

"Everybody knew in the city I was innocent and even the jurors," Tyree said of the verdict. "I'm happy for that and I thank the jurors for seeing that."

Tyree was accused of failing to do anything about the dangers he saw, or should have seen, during his March 5, 2015, inspection of 104 Jay St., which was destroyed in a fire the next morning.

The trial 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.

Prosecutors also argued the building lacked fire doors, which allowed the fire to spread quickly.

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.

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.

Tuesday's verdict came three years to the day after the blaze.

Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said the verdict was an outcome that they didn't like, "but it was always a tough case against the building inspector. He was there 10 seconds looking at the fire panel."

Carney said he sees no question Tyree was negligent, but the jury decided he hadn't committed a crime. Prosecutors Michael DeMatteo and Michael Nobles handled the case. 

Prosecutors argued the fire alarm panel would have alerted anyone that there was an issue with the system. Data showed a red "fire alarm" light was lit, along with a yellow "alarm silenced" and another that said "supervisory." A green LCD screen read in part "Alarm: Fire." Tyree reported only that he saw green.

The alarm had been systematically silenced in the weeks preceding and never reset. Building manager Jason Sacks canceled the alarm monitoring service the previous fall, leaving the system unwatched and alarms not reset. Sacks admitted responsibility for the deaths in January, pleading guilty to four counts of criminally negligent homicide. He testified against Tyree and is to get 1 to 3 years in prison.

Carney said if Tyree had accurately reported what he saw that day, the deaths and injuries would have been avoided.

"I think the whole theme of our case and the prosecution was he just wasn't honest about getting the job," Carney said. "He wasn't honest about what he saw that day and, if he had been honest about it, he might not have been indicted and, more importantly, if he had reacted to what he saw, those people would be alive today."

Carney said he could only guess at what led jurors to their verdict, but he believes they probably felt that his time there was limited and that his role was less than others.

"My guess is that's the way they viewed it, that he was there to do his job, he just did a very bad job," Carney said.

Tyree's defense leaned heavily on Tyree's training when sent in to inspect such a large building. Tyree said it was the first time he had inspected a building like that and he had no specific training on that fire alarm system. He even indicated he didn't know what a fire door was, though prosecutors argued he did and that he took a course that included fire alarms.

The verdict comes as the state Comptroller's Office is finalizing a report that found shortcomings on how the Building Department approached buildings with three or more apartments. Tyree inspected 104 Jay St. off a voluntary request based on change in ownership of the building.

Asked Tuesday about issues brought up at the trial, Mayor Gary McCarthy said either that they have been addressed or that defense claims were untrue.

The city has instituted background checks to catch omissions like Tyree's criminal history, McCarthy said. The city has also instituted tighter controls on communications after a missed fax led the building department to not receive word that the 104 Jay St. alarm monitoring contract had been canceled, he said.

McCarthy, however, didn't accept the defense's training assertions. He called it "more a position of convenience" for the defense than something that's factual.

"It's unfortunate this whole thing happened, but we have been working since I've been here to try and improve our code enforcement operation," McCarthy said.

Tyree specifically was convicted of checking "no" on his application where it asked if he had ever been convicted of a crime. He has burglary and other convictions from the 1980s. Tyree argued he thought there was a time limit and he already had the job at that point. Prosecutors contended he deprived the city of all the facts when hiring him.

Gaylord said he is hopeful Tyree will avoid prison time, considering the "main culprit," Sacks, is to get 1 to 3 years at his sentencing later. He pleaded guilty in January to four criminally negligent homicide counts. Sacks canceled the fire alarm monitoring for the building the previous fall and was responsible for the general state of the building.

"I think in general, when the jury heard everything about what Ken did at 104 Jay St. that morning, there was just nothing about his actions that day to led anybody to say he was negligent or he was reckless or he was doing anything other than his job, really," Gaylord told reporters afterward.

Asked about the lives lost, Tyree said he is still affected by that.

"They'll always be with me and on my shoulder for the rest of my life," Tyree said. "I could have been the last person that ever talked to them. Of course I'm sad. I have a kid, I wouldn't want anything to happen."

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