Gerhard Becker

Gerhard Becker, left, talks to arson investigator William Thost. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / February 17, 2011)

The manslaughter case against German architect Gerhard Becker was novel from the start.

Los Angeles prosecutors charged that Becker built a Hollywood Hills West mansion with such disregard for public safety and building codes that he should be held criminally liable for the death of a Los Angeles firefighter who was crushed by 1,000 pounds of ceiling while battling a blaze there in 2011.

Becker, 49, was set to go on trial for involuntary manslaughter and faced up to four years in jail. But on Friday, the case came to an abrupt end with a judge agreeing to a deal that will keep the architect in jail for six months in exchange for a no contest plea.

Prosecutors, the victim’s family and firefighters opposed the resolution, saying Becker deserved more punishment. About 15 uniformed firefighters attended the court hearing Friday to lend their support. More than 400 firefighters submitted letters to the court.

In offering the deal, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry questioned the strength of the prosecution’s case. He suggested that a Los Angeles building and safety inspector who reviewed Becker’s home may share some of the blame.

The inspector, Brad Bescos, signed off on the house three months before the fire, according to court records. During an interview with investigators and then in testimony at a preliminary hearing in 2012, Bescos offered conflicting accounts about whether he saw some of the building code violations or whether Becker might have hid them. The confusion damaged his credibility in the eyes of the judge.

“There are serious issues of proof for responsibility of the loss of life,” Perry said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney had offered Becker a plea deal of two years in jail. He criticized the judge’s offer Friday, saying it missed an opportunity to send a stronger message to architects considering skirting rules.

“It is a sentence that undermines any deterrent effect – that says they can blame it on city bureaucracy’s negligence,” Carney said outside the courtroom, flanked by firefighters.

“I don't think six months in jail is worth what all these guys went through,” retired firefighter Kevin Mulvehill told reporters. “Everyone who responded has a life sentence.”

After 11 years of designing massive villas on a Spanish island, Becker had set his sights on a new challenge: a lot on Viewsite Terrace straddling a hillside a mile up from West Hollywood’s ritzy Sunset Plaza.

He bought the land for $905,000 in 2009 and then began designing and overseeing the $4-million construction of what was to be his 12,000-square-foot home. He was not licensed by the California Architects Board.

The living room, kitchen, garage and deck would sit at street level and two other floors would drop behind the cliff, offering unfettered views of the Los Angeles Basin.

An infinity pool, floor-to-ceiling windows, a maid’s room, nine bathrooms and six bedrooms were built on the palm-tree-lined property.

The producers of a German reality TV show hosted by Heidi Klum paid $100,000 to use the home for two months.

Disregarding the manufacturer’s safety warnings in favor of aesthetics, Becker placed a long, natural-gas fire trough into a recessed wall of the mansion’s living room, prosecutors alleged.

The pebble-filled fire pit came with a notice that it could lead to loss of life if installed anywhere but outdoors. It sat along an alcove that was 15 feet long, 18 inches high and 18 inches above the floor. Flames rose just 2 inches from the top.

The fire pit had been in operation the night of the blaze, but authorities couldn’t determine whether it had been turned off before the ignition box below led to the larger blaze.

Becker surrounded the fireplace -- and three similar ones in the home -- with wood and drywall instead of non-flammable materials. Each unit cost $6,000 installed, according to court files. Authorities said that had it been done properly, the price would have been 10 times more.

“No reasonable person would build a fireplace out of wood, because what happens is the obvious result, the wood catches fire,” Carney said.