George Joseph, The City
This article was originally published on Sep 27 12:51pm EDT by THE CITY
At a sparsely attended court room in downtown Brooklyn, Judge Danny Chun sentenced a Flatbush landlord to 6 months in jail and 5 years of probation on Tuesday after a deadly fire in his building claimed the life of 70-year-old Jean Yves Lalanne in 2019.
“This building was an absolute disaster waiting to happen because of the conditions, and in fact, it did happen,” Chun said sitting at the bench. “Frankly, more people could have died.”
Prosecutors had argued for more time, one-and-a-third to four years behind bars, claiming that the landlord, Evener Leon, 62, had accepted “no responsibility” for the deadly fire that drove his tenant to jump from his third-floor window to his death. Leon was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in May, following a bench trial conducted by Chun.
The fire started in the insulation of a cord tied to a space heater on the building’s second floor where Leon and his family lived, a probe by fire marshals determined. It then spread to the third floor, which had been carved up into four illegal apartments, according to prosecutors. Once the fire spread to the stairwell, Lalanne had no way to reach the fire escape at the back of the building because of the floor’s illegal layout, authorities alleged at the time of the indictment.
At the sentencing hearing, Frank Longobardi, the District Attorney’s Special Counsel to the Frauds Bureau, argued that the deadly fire was part of a broader pattern of neglect. For years before the incident, prosecutors note, Leon didn’t pay his gas or heat bills but instead gave his tenants hot plates and space heaters.
“Instead of providing central heat, judge, he did this, he gave them space heaters,” said Longobardi. “Everyone knows that space heaters are really dangerous.”
In response, Leon’s defense attorney, Alain Massena, pointed to his age, problems with high blood pressure and lack of criminal record, arguing that Leon had “done his best to live a law-abiding life” and deserved a non-jail sentence.
The building owner also briefly spoke in his own defense with the help of a Haitian Creole interpreter just before Chun’s sentencing decision.
“I’ve always respected everyone,” Leon, who declined further comment to THE CITY, told the court. “You never know how the future will be.”
In the end, Chun came down in the middle.
“Despite Mr. Massena’s argument that a non-jail sentence will accomplish justice, I beg to differ,” said Chun. “But I also don’t agree with the people’s recommendation of a maximum sentence. He is somewhat elderly and has never been in trouble before.”
In the weeks leading up to the deadly fire in 2019, tenants in the third floors of Leon’s building had filed complaints with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) alleging they lacked heat, hot water, gas and electricity.
HPD data over the last five years shows that Flatbush is a hot spot for certified heating violations.
Housing violations for inadequate heat are most prevalent in Central and Eastern Brooklyn
Housing Maintenance Code violations under “Section 27-2029: Minimum temperature to be maintained.” Violations issued by HPD over the last five years, standardized by HPD-registered units per Brooklyn neighborhood.
A 2020 audit by the state comptroller’s office criticized HPD for failing to properly identify and promptly respond to tenants’ heat and hot water complaints.
“Inspections occurring two days or longer after a complaint is filed allow landlords time to correct the condition — in some cases only temporarily — in anticipation of an inspection, as indicated by some tenants,” the comptroller’s office noted at the time.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.