By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
Since 2016, Bong Row, the section of downtown Los Angeles lined with shops selling smoking paraphernalia, has been a focus of concern for neighboring Little Tokyo residents and merchants. Last week, the call from residents and community organizations for closer regulation and stiffer penalties for dangerous business practices intensified.
Three fires that ignited along or near Third Street between Los Angeles and San Pedro streets from June 8 to 10 have Little Tokyo residents and merchants wondering whether the justice system has failed to deter illegal storage of explosive materials by building owners and smoke shop operators.
Following the May 16, 2020, explosion and fire on the 300 block of Boyd Street that injured 12 firefighters, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer filed over 300 criminal charges against the owners and operators of four downtown buildings and three businesses.
However, the city attorney can only file misdemeanor charges, not felonies. As part of a plea agreement, two of the business operators, Smoke Tokes and Green Buddha, were ordered to pay $127,000 to the Los Angeles Fire Department and sentenced to one year of probation. In addition, Raheel Lakhany and Shafaq Sattar, who each owned one of the businesses, agreed to cease operating at the 325-327 E. Boyd St. location.
Steve Sungho Lee, 57, owner of the Boyd Street buildings, is due in L.A. Superior Court for a pre-trial hearing on Friday, June 25. He faces 86 counts for last year’s fire and an additional 46 counts for violations at two other locations he owns — 309 S. San Pedro St. and 5719 S. Avalon.
According to Lee’s website, his company owns or manages more than 100 commercial properties principally located in the Southern California and Dallas-Fort Worth area. Included in his portfolio are three other properties in or near Little Tokyo.
Charges include violations that break state and city fire codes, conspiracy to endanger the public health, failure to post hazmat warnings and no smoking signs, and failure to obtain a facility permit.
Although the building at 262 S. Los Angeles St., site of last week’s three-story fire and explosion, is not owned by Lee, the unsafe storage practices employed by smoke shop operators involved in the blazes are similar.
The rash of smoke shop fires began in September 2016 when Smoke Tokes on San Pedro Street, just south of Third Street, went up in flames. At that time, firefighters had to force their way into the building, where they found “intense fire in dense and highly flammable storage that included pressurized flammable gas cylinders, which were heard to explode.”