New York

Anger Erupts as Rabbis Who Started Fatal Nursing Home Fire Avoid Jail

Tensions ran high in a Rockland County, N.Y., courtroom on Wednesday as two rabbis who have admitted to recklessly starting a deadly fire at an assisted living home were spared jail time under a plea agreement with prosecutors.

The rabbis, Nathaniel Sommer, 71, and his son Aaron, 29, were sentenced instead to probation after pleading guilty in connection with the March 2021 fire at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in Spring Valley, N.Y., which they set off during a ritual cleansing of the home’s kitchen and ovens before Passover.

The fast-moving blaze killed Oliver Hueston, 79, one of the home’s 112 residents, and Jared Lloyd, 35, a volunteer firefighter who ran into the building and died attempting a rescue on the third floor. About a dozen others were injured.

In an emotional statement delivered in court, Mr. Lloyd’s mother, Sabrail Davenport, expressed outrage about the sentence.

“How does the negligent act of these offenses warrant no jail time?” Ms. Davenport asked Judge Kevin Russo of Rockland County Criminal Court, who described the sentence as “entirely appropriate.”

“How do you explain to my grandsons that these defendants who caused this tragedy will not be punished?” Ms. Davenport added.

Addressing the Sommers, Mr. Lloyd’s father, Calvin Lloyd, criticized “the decision you made as a father and son, not realizing the impact it would have on this father and son.”

He added: “Each and every day I struggle to get through the day, knowing that I will never be able to talk to my son again.”

The decision by the county’s district attorney, Thomas E. Walsh, not to seek jail time for the Sommers has prompted a backlash among Mr. Lloyd’s fellow firefighters, who packed the courtroom and the lawn outside for the sentencing.

In a videotaped statement, Mr. Walsh, who is seeking re-election to a second term and had previously declined to address the plea agreement publicly, sought to explain his decision.

Acknowledging that Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Hueston were “irreplaceable,” he said the case was the first of its kind in New York.

“No one has been convicted, let alone arrested and prosecuted, for utilizing a torch and hot coals for a ritual religious cleaning in the manner the defendants chose that evening,” Mr. Walsh said.

By choosing to resolve the charges before trial, he said, his office had “eliminated the unpredictability that accompanies” going before a jury and had only done so on the condition that at least one of the Sommers acknowledged their recklessness in open court.

Nathaniel Sommer did that in pleading guilty to two counts of manslaughter in June, Mr. Walsh said. On Wednesday, Mr. Sommer expressed remorse.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I feel terrible about what I did,” adding, “I pray every day about this.”

The sentencing came two days after firefighters and relatives gathered at Mr. Lloyd’s firehouse and his young sons, Darius and Logan, unveiled a plaque honoring him, the local news site Lohud reported.

It was the latest in a series of tributes to Mr. Lloyd that included a Medal of Valor ceremony at the White House in July. His mother and sons accepted the honor, given to public safety officers who display “exceptional courage,” from President Biden.

Sabrail Davenport, left, the mother of Jared Lloyd, and John Davenport, his stepfather, hold a poster of the fallen firefighter as they leave the courthouse.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

Mr. Lloyd, a 16-year veteran of Columbian Fire Engine Co. No. 1 of Spring Valley, was among the first of more than 100 firefighters to respond to the Evergreen Court blaze when it broke out at around 1 a.m. on March 23, 2021.

Hours earlier, the Sommers had used an industrial blowtorch to cleanse the home’s ovens and kitchen for Passover in a ritual they had performed at Evergreen Court for at least a decade — one the authorities said they did not have a permit for.

The ritual caused “smoldering” inside the building’s walls that lasted several hours before the fire was detected, Michael Dugandzic, a prosecutor, said in court.

Flames were tearing through the building and shooting up to the roof when firefighters arrived. Mr. Lloyd rushed in repeatedly to help residents who had walkers or wheelchairs.

He was near Mr. Hueston’s room when he made an emergency “mayday” call. Part of the building collapsed, burying him in rubble.

Nathaniel Sommer, middle, and Aaron Sommer, right, inside Rockland County Court. The Sommers were sentenced to probation after admitting to sparking the fire that killed two people and injured about a dozen others.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

The Sommers were among six people charged in the case, and their pleas resulted in the only convictions. Mr. Walsh’s office ended the prosecution of two others, both former Evergreen Court employees, in exchange for their testimony to a grand jury. The final two, local building inspectors, were acquitted at trial of charges that they had falsified documents.

The estates of Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Hueston have sued Evergreen Court’s operators and those who were charged.

Mr. Walsh said the suits, in their early stages, would benefit from the Sommers’ guilty pleas.

That was little comfort to Mr. Hueston’s son Daniel, who said in a statement read by a prosecutor that his daughter would never get to meet her grandfather.

“I think people should also be forgiven once they admit guilt to a crime,” Mr. Hueston said. “But I do not think the sentence goes far enough to make them understand the consequences.”

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