Investigator: Former fire official falsified records

A state investigation into a deadly apartment complex fire in Grand Isle has targeted a former state fire marshal official who allegedly falsified records about his attempted inspection of the building months before it went up in flames, according to new court filings.

Nunzio Marchiafava, a district chief who retired from the state Fire Marshal’s Office last month, logged fictitious mileage for a trip he claimed he made in May from his New Orleans office to the former site of the Rusty Pelican Economy Lodge in Grand Isle, according to a search warrant filed by an Office of State Inspector General investigator.

The run-down complex, which was heavily damaged in Hurricane Katrina, caught fire Sept. 26, killing two residents who were trapped inside.

The day after the fatal fire, Marchiafava filed a “special report” claiming he had driven to Grand Isle on May 25 but had not been able to find anyone at the complex. Marchiafava had been tasked with looking into a complaint the state Fire Marshal’s Office received about the deteriorating condition of the former motel about six months before the fire.

Investigator Heath Humble of the Office of State Inspector General alleged in an affidavit that Marchiafava’s report was “authored to deceive the public and or his supervisors” and amounted to the filing of a false public record. Cellphone records revealed Marchiafava made several calls from the New Orleans area during the time he claimed to be traveling to Grand Isle, the affidavit says.

Humble’s search warrant sought several months of emails from Marchiafava’s former work email account, located on the Department of Public Safety’s server in Baton Rouge. Marchiafava retired from the state Fire Marshal’s Office on March 16, four days before investigators served a subpoena for his cellphone records.

“This search warrant is part of a joint investigation we’re conducting with Louisiana State Police, and our office won’t have any further comment until we reach a conclusion,” said Greg Phares, chief investigator with the Office of State Inspector General. Phares noted that the state Fire Marshal’s Office is cooperating with the investigation.

Calls to Fire Marshal Butch Browning were not returned this week. Efforts to reach Marchiafava for comment also were unsuccessful.

The apartment complex, which had been known as the Willow Creek Apartments, caught fire Sept. 26, killing residents Belle Brandl, 60, and Timothy Foret, 46. The state Fire Marshal’s Office was unable to pinpoint the source of the blaze after an investigation, but concluded “human intervention” played a role.

The Office of State Inspector General opened its own inquiry in October after receiving a complaint from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, the New Orleans-based watchdog organization, alleging the state Fire Marshal’s Office had failed to inspect the complex after receiving a complaint in March 2012 that it presented an “extreme fire hazard.”

The complaint, filed by Milton Bourgeois, a Grand Isle rental property owner, claimed the former motel site had missing doors, windows, and air-conditioning units that left “large, gaping holes” in the structure.

“To the best of my knowledge there are no fire extinguishers located in each and every room of the building as the law requires, nor is there any fire alarm system warning the occupants should a fire occur,” Bourgeois said in the complaint.

“It was a run-down piece of junk,” he added in an interview. “I was mad and aggravated because no one did nothing.”

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, has faulted the state Fire Marshal’s Office for failing to execute “something as simple as an inspection” before the fatal fire. He said the search warrant filed this week indicates the Office of Inspector General inquiry is moving forward, but that investigators don’t have enough information yet to finalize their case.

Foret’s older sister, Yvonne Grizzaffi, expressed frustration about the inspection process, saying the state Fire Marshal’s Office had not enforced safety standards at the apartment complex.

“If they would have,” Grizzaffi said in a telephone interview, “they would’ve known it was a death trap anyway because there was only one way out of there.”