The former head of a New York assisted living community, and five others, have been charged in connection with a fatal fire that swept through the building in March, killing one resident and a firefighter.
Arrest warrants were issued for Denise Kerr, who has been identified as the former executive director of the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in Spring Valley, NY, in media reports, and Manuel Lema. It is unclear whether Lema was employed by the community, although some media reports have said Lema was a member of the support staff. Kerr has been charged with second-degree reckless endangerment, and Lema was charged with second-degree criminal impersonation and obstructing governmental administration.
A statement from Evergreen Court provided to media outlets said the community has cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so.
“We know from our investigation that the facility’s fire mitigation systems were all operational and functioned as intended the night of the fire,” the statement read. “”One thing we do not yet know is the extent to which the area’s historic water pressure problems prevented the fire from being contained. As a longstanding member of the community, we continue to make and support every effort to get to the bottom of this tragic loss of life.”
Volunteer Spring Valley Fire Lt. Jared Lloyd and Evergreen Court resident Oliver Hueston, 79, died in the fire and subsequent building collapse.
Father-and-son rabbis Nathaniel Sommer and Aaron Sommer reportedly were using a blowtorch in the community’s kitchen as part of a pre-Passover cleaning ritual around the time of the fire. Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Rockland County District Attorney Thomas E. Walsh alleged that their actions caused the fire.
The two each were charged with two counts of second-degree manslaughter, two counts of second-degree assault, fourth-degree arson, seven counts of third-degree assault, and two counts of second-degree reckless endangerment.
The father and son were arraigned Tuesday and transported to a county jail. They each posted $200,000 bail and were released, with a court appearance scheduled for Aug. 31, according to The Journal News, in the Lower Hudson Valley.
Additionally, Village of Spring Valley Building Department Chief Wayne Ballard was charged with first-degree offering false instrument and second-degree falsifying business records. Building Inspector Ray Canario, who also serves as a local volunteer fire chief, was charged with three counts of first-degree offering false instrument and three counts of second-degree falsifying business records.
Canario and Ballard are scheduled to appear in court in Spring Valley on July 13.
Walsh said the charges against the six individuals will be presented to a county grand jury for indictment. He said he declined to release specific details to avoid affecting prosecution of the case. Walsh called the arrests a “first step in bringing justice to all involved,” adding that the investigation is ongoing.
The arrest announcement came approximately a week after law enforcement seized 20 to 30 boxes of government documents from Spring Valley municipal offices, according to The Journal News. Questions persist about whether the assisted living community met fire and safety codes, the media outlet reported.
Following the fire, Kerr released a statement mourning the loss of the firefighter and resident.
“We are fully cooperating with all state and local governments in investigating this fire and are also conducting our own internal investigation,” Kerr said in a statement. “The staff was really brave in evacuating the inhabitants inside the building as the first spread.”
The three-month investigation involved the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, Spring Valley Police Department, Rockland County Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive, New York State Police, and the Rockland County District Attorney’s Special Investigations Unit.