Victor Aguirre waves to well-wishers as he leaves L.A. County USC Medical Center on July 21, 2020. Doctors initially thought the fire captain’s hands would have to be amputated due to injuries suffered battling the smoke shop explosion near Little Tokyo on May 16, 2020. (KTLA)

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Downtown Los Angeles property owner Steve Sungho Lee and operators of Smoke Tokes, an international distributor of smoking and vaping products, faced criminal charges in L.A. Superior Court on Friday stemming from the May 2020 fire and explosion at 327 Boyd St. just south of Little Tokyo.

Lee and Smoke Tokes are among nine defendants, each of them charged with 36 criminal counts ranging from fire code violations to conspiracy to commit an act injurious to the public health. 

Also named in the criminal proceedings are SL Property Management II LLC, L&H Limited Partnership, Minh V. Vo, BioHazard Inc., Shafaq Aslam Sattar, Green Buddha LLC, and Raheela Lakhany.

The case will return Jan. 21, 2022 for final disposition.

On Sept. 15, Deborah Chang and Patrick Gunning of ChangKlein LLP filed a civil suit against the building owners and business operators on behalf of L.A. Fire Department Capt. Victor Aguirre.

According to the complaint, “Unbeknownst to the firefighters…the premises contained hundreds of illegally and improperly stored butane canisters and thousands of illegally and improperly stored nitrous oxide cylinders…within storage that was unsafe.

“In addition, the manner of storage negligently or intentionally concealed these contents from firefighters by omitting required hazardous materials identification including signs.”

Aguirre was leading firefighters toward the roof of the building when he sensed something was wrong and ordered his team to retreat. He is credited with saving the lives of his fellow firefighters. Eleven were injured when canisters stored in the Smoke Tokes shop exploded. They were hospitalized and released, but Aguirre’s injuries were more severe.

He sustained burns throughout his body and lost the use of both hands, resulting in over a dozen surgeries and more than two months of hospitalization. He continues to work at LAFD in an administrative capacity.

The U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, LAPD and other agencies investigated the Boyd Street incident.

Previously, on Sept. 12, 2016, Smoke Tokes was the site of a fire at 330 E. 3rd St. requiring 146 firefighters to respond. The vaping and smoking shop still conducts business in the same general area at 309 S. San Pedro St.

On Aug. 21, 2020, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer announced filing over 300 criminal charges against the defendants for alleged fire code and safety violations following the subject incident.

“The fire and explosion that ripped through the Boyd Street property caused our firefighters great suffering — and came perilously close to costing their lives. We’ll do everything we can to hold the owners and operators of buildings and businesses responsible for complying with our fire and safety codes,” said Feuer.

“The public is counting on us to protect them from a potential catastrophe.” The Aguirre complaint, which seeks unspecified damages, also mentions the most recent June 8, 2021, fire on Third and Los Angeles streets that gutted a 100-year-old building where “at least two of the businesses contained smoking supplies, including pressurized gas canisters, which caused the explosions.”

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