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Building manager sentenced in fatal Jay Street fire

Building manager sentenced in fatal Jay Street fire

Sacks, responsible for the failure of the fire alarm system, gets 1-3 years in prison
Building manager sentenced in fatal Jay Street fire
Jason Sacks, center, apologizes to the court for the fire at 104 Jay St. that killed four people.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY — Jason Sacks didn't intentionally cause the deaths of four people inside 104 Jay St., a judge noted Friday.

Instead, Sacks acted with criminal negligence, something that still cost people their lives.

"Oftentimes, nothing can be done to stop an intentional act," Judge Matthew Sypniewski told the former 104 Jay St. building manager. "But this could have been avoided.

"And I don't know that you appreciate that," the judge continued. "You were supposed to give them a place to live and be safe. Instead, you allowed for a situation that they were given a place to die."

Sypniewski then imposed on Sacks the agreed-upon sentence for his guilty pleas to four counts of criminally negligent homicide: 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. He apologized during his statement at sentencing.

Prosecutors allege he canceled the alarm monitoring contract for the building months before the March 2015 fire. That resulted in the system being inoperable by the time of the blaze. 

Information released in recent months has pointed to failures in the overall system that helped contribute to the tragedy. However, prosecutor Michael DeMatteo noted on Friday that Sacks' actions played a major role.

"It all started when the fire alarm monitoring service was canceled by the defendant, not long after the building changed owners," DeMatteo told the court. The system never sounded the morning of 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, and the building and an adjacent structure were destroyed.

Sypniewski imposed the sentence after hearing from two loved ones of victims: Allen's fiance, who was also a good friend of Suarez; and Thomas' brother.

Allen's fiance spoke emotionally about Allen and Suarez. Katherine, who asked that her full name not be used, told of the apartment at 104 Jay St. being unsafe. Electrical outlets would spark, and the ceiling leaked, among other issues.

Allen, Suarez and Katherine all had plans for their lives, Katherine said.

"The love and happiness we had was all taken away by the irresponsibility of people you are supposed to count on for maintaining safety and trust," she told the court. "Our lives were taken from us -- theirs and mine -- because of his choices, decisions and actions."

Thomas' brother Michael Roberson asked for justice for his brother. He referenced a grand jury report released earlier this week concerning the larger failings of the city in the lead-up to the fire and questioned why a tragedy had to happen for things to change.

"This is one that was caused through the lack of due diligence," Roberson said.

As Sypniewski began remarks before imposing the sentence, Katherine uncontrollably sobbed in the gallery. She left the gallery midway through the judge's comments to compose herself.

Sacks was one of two people to face charges in the fire. The other was former building inspector Kenneth Tyree, who inspected the building the day before the fire. A jury acquitted him last month of all charges related to the blaze but convicted him of lying on his job application. He is to be sentenced on that charge next month.

Sypniewski noted that during Tyree's trial Sacks attempted to minimize his role in the deaths. He said Sacks' testimony was, at best, "loosely associated with the truth."

The judge called Sacks' decision to plead guilty a calculated choice, and no doubt the right one for him. The judge referred to extensive testimony from the Tyree trial about conditions inside 104 Jay St. and Sacks' negligence in the months leading up to the blaze. 

"Because, from the testimony I heard, I have little doubt that you would have been found guilty," Sypniewski said. 

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