Owner of L.A. building that exploded gets judicial diversion

A downtown Los Angeles building owner who faced dozens of misdemeanor charges after an explosion ripped through his property and severely burned 11 firefighters has avoided potential jail time by entering a judicial diversion program.

Steve Sungho Lee, and six of his companies, faced 163 criminal misdemeanor charges stemming from the May 16, 2020, explosion inside an East 3rd Street warehouse that housed a smoke shop and vaping supplier. Lee faced up to 68 years in jail if he was convicted on all charges.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Court Commissioner Elizabeth Harris said she was granting Lee’s request to enter a judicial diversion program for two years. If, during that time, Lee and his companies comply with the law and maintain the buildings appropriately, all charges will be dismissed.

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, who had pledged to hold Lee and and the business operators accountable, opposed the move.

“The City Attorney’s 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 [the] L.A. firefighters,” Feuer said. His office had argued that probation was more appropriate outcome.

The blast sent 11 firefighters to the hospital, with many suffering severe injuries that have left them physically scarred. Only two of the 11 have been able to return to work, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesperson said. Capt. Victor Aguirre was burned so severely that he lost the use of his hands and had to be hospitalized for more than two months. He has sued the owners of the building and businesses.

The explosion occurred on the edge of downtown’s skid row, in an area nicknamed “bong row,” where numerous businesses sell rolling papers, butane and other supplies associated with vaping and smoking.

A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigation found the blaze ignited under a storage rack at at 327 Boyd St. The buildings involved are owned by Lee and were occupied by three businesses — Smoke Tokes, Green Buddha and Bio Hazard. According to the ATF report, a surveillance camera showed that a worker with a lit cigarette had ducked into the ignition area for 14 seconds. The ATF could not eliminate this as the cause of the fire and deemed it “accidental.”

“We are pleased that the Court’s decision today will ultimately result in the dismissal of all of the charges filed by the City Attorney in this case against Steve Lee and that Mr. Lee will be deemed by law to have never been charged,” said Blair Berk, Lee’s attorney. “The exhaustive federal investigation of the tragic fire objectively concluded that the cause was accidental, and there was no finding of any wrongdoing by Mr. Lee or his companies.”

Several days after the blast, a Times reporter and photographer approached Lee at the scene of the fire as ATF investigators scoured the area. Lee asked not to be photographed and suggested he had previous disputes with the owner of Smoke Tokes over the way materials were stored in the facility.

In a civil lawsuit, attorneys for Aguirre allege firefighters believed they were fighting a “routine ventilation limited structure fire” but moments after entering heard a “popcorn-like” noise that rapidly escalated before a “jet-like rumble.” Aguirre, who was on the roof, was last off the building; the enormous explosion engulfed him and other firefighters as they scrambled onto the aerial ladder of a firetruck.

Feuer charged Lee after the Los Angeles County district attorney declined to file felony charges. As part of the diversion, Lee and his companies must pay $125,704 for the investigation, comply with extensive timely inspections and cooperate with Fire Department training.

Feuer had pledged to “do everything we can to hold the owners and operators of buildings and businesses responsible for complying with our fire and safety codes. The public is counting on us to protect them from a potential catastrophe.”

Lee, a well-known property developer, has been a notable spender in local elections, contributing tens of thousands of dollars to independent committees that supported council members.

The owners of Smoke Tokes and Green Buddha struck a plea deal with city prosecutors and paid more than $100,000 for the investigation and agreed to cease operating in the Boyd Street area.

Last year, business owners Raheel Lakhany and Raheel Shafaq Sattar saw the dozens of charges filed against them dismissed after they entered a plea of no contest to four municipal violations involving improper storage of flammable materials and other fire code violations.

Prosecutors had accused them of a conspiracy to endanger public health, which included such violations as failure to maintain aisles, failure to have hazmat warning signs, failure to have no smoking signs and failure to classify hazardous commodities.

In a report, the Fire Department determined the “excessive quantity” of nitrous oxide and butane containers inside Smoke Tokes fueled the fire, which damaged several other properties. The report also revealed that the LAFD had failed to inspect the building for at least a year before the blast.

Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.

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