Owner of DTLA building where blast injured 11 firefighters escapes jail time

Steve Sungho Lee assessed $125,000, ordered into “judicial diversion” program

Photo from the May 16th fire in the 200 block of East 3rd Street with LAFD's Captain Victor Aguirre (Getty, LAFD)
Photo from the May 16th fire in the 200 block of East 3rd Street with LAFD's Captain Victor Aguirre (Getty, LAFD)

A Downtown Los Angeles business owner who faced up to 68 years in jail for charges related to a building fire that injured 11 firefighters will not spend time behind bars.

Steve Sungho Lee–who faced 163 criminal misdemeanor charges stemming from the May 2020 explosion inside an East 3rd Street warehouse containing a smoke shop and vaping supplier–will enter a judicial diversion program instead, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Los Angeles Court Commissioner Elizabeth Harris granted Lee’s request to enter a judicial diversion program for two years. If Lee and his companies obey the law and maintain the buildings, all charges will be dismissed.

As part of the diversion, Lee and his companies must pay $125,704 for the fire investigation, comply with building inspections and cooperate with Fire Department training. Blair Berk, Lee’s attorney, expressed satisfaction with the decision.

“The exhaustive federal investigation of the tragic fire objectively concluded that the cause was accidental,” Berk said, “and there was no finding of any wrongdoing by Mr. Lee or his companies.”

The May 16, 2020 explosion in Little Tokyo 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 so badly burned he lost the use of both hands, and was hospitalized for more than two months while undergoing 25 surgeries. He has sued the owners of the building and businesses. 

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The explosion occurred on the edge of Skid Row, in a district dubbed “bong row” because of its businesses that sell vaping, cannabis and tobacco supplies.

A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigation found the blaze was sparked under a storage rack at 327 Boyd St.. The buildings involved are owned by Lee and were occupied by three businesses – Smoke Tokes, Green Buddha and Bio Hazard. A surveillance camera showed a worker with a lit cigarette ducking into the ignition area for 14 seconds.

The ATF could not eliminate the smoker as the cause of the fire and deemed it “accidental,” the newspaper reported.

The owners of Smoke Tokes and Green Buddha struck deals agreeing to pay more than $100,000 for the investigation and to cease operating in the Boyd Street area.

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, who had pledged to hold Lee and the business operators accountable, opposed the diversion ruling. Instead, his office had pushed for probation.
“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.

[Los Angeles Times] – Dana Bartholomew

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