A retired state Fire Marshal’s Office investigator surrendered to authorities Wednesday on accusations he falsified paperwork of an attempted inspection of a dilapidated apartment complex in Grand Isle that later caught fire with two residents trapped inside.
Nunzio Marchiafava, 67, of Gretna, a former district chief based in New Orleans, was booked into the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on one felony count of filing false public records.
Marchiafava admitted to investigators last week that he logged fictitious mileage for a trip he claimed to have made in May to the former site of the Rusty Pelican Economy Lodge, according to an arrest warrant. The complex, which had been known as the Willow Creek Apartments, caught fire Sept. 26, killing residents Belle Brandl, 60, and Timothy Foret, 46.
Six months before the fatal fire, the state Fire Marshal’s Office received a complaint from a Grand Isle rental property owner warning of the deteriorating conditions of the apartment complex, which had been heavily damaged during Hurricane Katrina. Marchiafava had been tasked with looking into the complaint, and the day after the blaze, filed a “special report” claiming he had driven to Grand Isle on May 25 but was unable to find anyone at the complex.
But cellphone records show Marchiafava made several calls from the New Orleans area during the time he claimed to be traveling to Grand Isle for the inspection, according to court filings.
Marchiafava told Office of State Inspector General investigators last week he had become “very worried” after the fire and destroyed a previously submitted activity report that showed he had spent May 25 at his New Orleans office, the warrant says. He admitted the only time he went to Grand Isle to investigate the conditions of the complex was on April 2, 2012.
“This obviously is a serious matter,” said Greg Phares, chief investigator with the Office of State Inspector General. Phares said his office and State Police are still investigating the case.
Brant Thompson, deputy chief at the state Fire Marshal’s Office, said his agency welcomed the investigation and is cooperating fully.
The Office of State Inspector General opened an investigation in October after receiving a complaint from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, the New Orleans-based watchdog organization. The complaint alleged the state Fire Marshal’s Office failed to inspect the apartment complex in March 2012 despite receiving a warning that the building presented an “extreme fire hazard.”
“He might have been able to save those people’s lives by conducting an inspection and identifying safety violations that would have given the Fire Marshal’s Office the authority to shut that facility down,” Rafael Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said of Marchiafava.
But Thompson said in an email that the facility “at the time of the fire was in full compliance with applicable codes and the Fire Marshal’s Office had no cause or authority to order this facility closed.” He said investigators determined the fire was able to quickly progress in part due to the types of materials permitted to be used in construction during the 1950s and early 1960s.
“I think it very irresponsible to suggest that Marchiafava’s failure to do a follow up inspection in any way contributed to this very tragic fire event,” Thompson said.
Fire Marshal Butch Browning has not returned calls seeking comment. He has previously stood by his office’s handling of the citizen complaint about conditions at the Willow Creek Apartments and said there is nothing his employees could have done to prevent the fire.
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