Patty Nagano took this photo of the fire in a warehouse on Boyd Street from the sixth floor of Teramachi on Third Street on May 16, 2020. In the foreground is The Terpene Lab, formerly the site of Smoke Tokes, which was destroyed in a fire in September 2016

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Nearly two years after a fire and explosion injured a dozen firefighters and destroyed a building just south of Little Tokyo, a court commissioner has dismissed charges against the building owner and allowed him to enter a diversion program instead.

Defendant Steve Sungho Lee, owner of the building at the center of the May 16, 2020 fire at 325 and 327 Boyd St., requested and was granted judicial diversion. Lee will enter into a diversion agreement for 24 months and pay $15,713, his portion of the $125,704 in investigation costs shared with his co-defendants in the case.

City Attorney Mike Feuer stated that his office objected to diversion “based on the severity of the fire and the alleged failure of the defendant to take steps which could have mitigated the extent of the blaze, and the injuries suffered by 12 L.A. firefighters.”

Terms of the diversion program include compliance with all relevant fire and building codes, disclosure of all commercial and industrial properties owned by the defendant, training by LAFD concerning maintenance of fire systems, and completion of corrective action required by issuing city agencies.

Tom Kasai, an administrator with the Southern California Gardeners Federation, recalls arriving for work the Monday after the fire. The SCGF building is located across the street from the Boyd Street building.

“Fortunately, the fire took place on Saturday, so no one in our building was injured. I remember cleaning up our parking lot, which was filled with metal debris from the fire. They looked like small stones.” The “stones” were later identified as parts of exploding butane canisters.

AB 3234, a State Assembly bill passed in August 2020, provides judges with the discretion to provide diversion to individuals charged with misdemeanors they deem appropriate for such a program.

In its motion opposing Lee’s request for diversion, the City Attorney’s Office noted that “the catastrophic fire event posed grave danger to the public (and) is not an appropriate misdemeanor for diversion. 

“The purpose of the fire code is to prevent fires and serious injury as a result of noncompliance.  Here, the Fire Department found illegal construction, hazardous storage, and a fire trap for firefighters. There was no sprinkler system in the building despite having two operating businesses at the property.

“There were no systems in place for the reduction of danger for the hazardous storage at the property. The fire spread to the neighboring unit and could have continued to spread if not for the actions of the Fire Department. 

“The failure of the property owner to provide sprinklers at the property made the conditions even more dangerous. In addition, the illegal construction of the partitions and the failure to inform the Fire Department of the type of materials located at the property contributed to the lack of safety inspections of the property based on the lack of reporting the changed conditions, but multiplied the danger to the public and the firefighters.”

In November 2020, as part of an agreement with the City Attorney’s Office, the retail businesses Smoke Tokes and Green Buddah (sic) pleaded no contest. In addition, Raheel Lakhany and Shafaq Sattar, who each owned one of the businesses, agreed to cease operating at the location of the fire. Charges against Lakhany and Sattar as individual defendants were dismissed as part of a plea deal.

Still pending is a civil suit filed on behalf of Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Victor Aguirre against Lee and the business operators who were tenants in his building. Aguirre sustained permanent injuries stemming from the 2020 incident. A hearing in the matter is set for May 16.

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