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Firefighters Accused of Theft From Quake-Hit Apartments

November 18, 1994|ADRIAN MAHER and SCOTT COLLINS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After the Northridge earthquake severely damaged the historic Sea Castle apartments, the Santa Monica Fire Department helped former tenants recover their belongings. But now authorities are investigating whether firefighters also helped themselves to tenants' property.

City officials received complaints that seven to 20 firefighters stole and perhaps sold tenants' belongings after a September cleanup of the red-tagged structure at 1725 The Promenade, on the Santa Monica oceanfront. Fire officials are expected to conclude a monthlong internal investigation next week.

Deputy Fire Chief Ettore Berardinelli declined to provide any details about the case. "When the inquiry is complete, the fire chief will make a recommendation to the city manager if further investigation is warranted," Berardinelli said. Fire Chief Richard Bridges, who was hired earlier this year, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

The matter could be turned over to the Santa Monica city attorney for prosecution if the city manager finds evidence of criminal intent.

The Sea Castle was sealed off after the January earthquake caused major structural damage. City officials temporarily shored up the building last summer and gave each former tenant a four-hour slot during two weeks in September to recover belongings under the supervision of firefighters.

Many tenants said they didn't have enough time to finish the job and had to leave appliances, collectibles and potted plants, among other items.

"We didn't have time to get in there and pack anything," said former tenant Stephen Brown, who now lives in a two-bedroom house in Mar Vista with another former Sea Castle resident. "It was all willy-nilly, no organization, catch-as-catch-can."

Berardinelli was quoted by a suburban newspaper this week as saying that the theft allegations may have resulted from confusion over the status of abandoned property. Firefighters, believing that whatever property was left in the building after the cleanup was unclaimed, removed some belongings with the intention of donating them to local charities, Berardinelli said.

Tenants signed a waiver that gave firefighters the right to remove any hazardous materials left after the cleanup. But former residents argued that the form did not give the Fire Department the right to take or give away their belongings.

The Salvation Army and the Venice Boys and Girls Club were enlisted to receive donations from tenants during the two weeks that firefighters permitted property retrieval. But since then, officials of both groups said they had received no donations from the Fire Department.

Times special correspondent Susan Steinberg contributed to this story.

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