Since 2014, Chicago fires have killed at least 61 people in buildings where city officials knew ahead of time about fire safety problems, according to an investigation by the Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune.
Some homes lacked smoke detectors or heat in wintertime. Some were overcrowded or didn’t have enough exits. People died in abandoned buildings the city failed to secure or demolish.
Here are details on each of these 42 fires, including news photos and excerpts from public documents, from inspection records to fire reports. To read more about how we identified these fires, read How We Reported This Story.
Select fireMarried couple trapped in overcrowded rooming houseElectrical ‘fire hazard’ warnings precede deadly blazeFire kills 3-year-old after many complaintsMan dies trapped in attic apartmentElectrical fire traps, kills woman; survivor hears ‘horrific’ screamsMan dies after rescuing grandson in apartment with one exitBarricaded doors, no smoke alarms listed in fatal arson fireBody found three months after abandoned building fireHistoric tragedy: 10 children die at sleepoverElectrical problem sparks blaze near amputee’s bedLocked burglar bars delay firefightersTwo girls die after family uses stove to keep warmMan trapped in ‘abandoned’ building‘Rotting’ porch leaves residents with no exitOn demolition list for years, building catches fire, traps oneWoman dies in building city ordered closedFour children die in top-floor apartmentBoy dies in building with no smoke alarms after landlord gets warning letterDeaf man dies when fire tears through rooming houseMan dies in building ruled uninhabitable for yearsMan dies in unstable red ‘X’ building under demolition orderElderly couple caught in fire; no smoke detectors foundFirefighter falls down elevator shaft in fatal fireFour die in building without smoke detectorsArson fire in long-troubled building kills threeMan dies in attic apartment with only one exitStovetop fire kills man trying to stay warmAlderman complains before deadly fireMan dies after electrical fire, as brother attempts rescueLawndale building on tear-down list catches fire, kills manBody found days after fire spreads from vacant buildingMan dies 19 months after judge orders building torn downElderly man dies in family home with no smoke detectorsMan dies in fire after locked burglar-bar complaintMan dies in ‘death trap’ after years of complaintsNo-heat complaints precede fire; electric heaters possible causeToddler dies after barricaded doors slow firefighter responseBrutal attack, arson kills woman in building without smoke detectorsWoman dies in building ordered vacated for yearsFamily’s desperate attempts to save 5-year-old failUnattended stove sparks high-rise fireFire kills man in attic apartment with no second exit
March 2, 2018 | 5243-5245 W. Chicago Ave.
Married couple trapped in overcrowded rooming house
The couple dies trying to get out of a South Austin apartment with blocked exits and no smoke detectors. City officials later report the overcrowded building was converted into a rooming house, powered by daisy-chained extension cords throughout the first floor and basement. Firefighters struggle to get into the building through a locked front door at the first-floor business. Investigators later say the fire possibly started from “extensive misuse of extension cords, power cords, and electrical conduit,” but the official cause remains undetermined.
In the three years before the fire, the city receives at least two 311 complaints of overcrowding, including one asserting the landlord rents the enclosed back porch, blocking the building’s rear exit. City inspectors report being unable to enter the building in response to either complaint. In one case, the inspector sends a warning letter asking the landlord to schedule an inspection. City officials take no further action.
Building officials said they have no authority to force an interior inspection. Marlene Hopkins, the first deputy buildings commissioner, said it is the owner’s responsibility “to make the necessary arrangements for us to come in to verify the conditions of their buildings.”
Howell Reneau, listed by the Fire Department as an owner of the property, did not return a voicemail message.
Dec. 20, 2015 | 131 E. 103rd Place
Electrical ‘fire hazard’ warnings precede deadly blaze
Scott dies after suffering injuries in a basement fire at a two-story home in Rosemoor that was started by an overloaded circuit breaker “illegally connected from the building next door,” according to police and fire reports.
Three years before the fire, a resident calls the city complaining that the home’s jury-rigged electrical service was illegally connected by “wires from ComEd lines” to the building. The report also says the illegal wiring is causing power outages to occur in other homes on the block and calls the situation a “fire hazard.” City officials close the case without responding to the complaint, stating they have “no jurisdiction” to deal with Commonwealth Edison lines. After the fire, investigators discover the jury-rigged lines are not connected to the utility lines but to the meter box of the house next door.
Marlene Hopkins, first deputy buildings commissioner, said the city automatically refers all violations relating to power lines to ComEd. “We can’t cross lines; they can’t cross over into what the city is responsible for and the city can’t cross over into what they’re responsible for,” she said.
Lonzyo Holcomb, owner of the single-family home, did not return a voicemail message.
March 12, 2014 | 1700-1708 W. Juneway Terrace
Fire kills 3-year-old after many complaints
Le’Andrea dies in the bedroom of her third-floor apartment in Rogers Park. In media interviews at the time, firefighters say she could have survived had smoke detectors gone off. Investigators said the girl had been playing with a lighter when the fire started. They found a smoke detector in the third-floor hallway was not working, and there were no smoke detectors installed in the apartment.
The building is cited for more than 88 code violations over eight years before the fire. Six months before the fire, a tenant calls 311 to complain there is no smoke detector in a unit. Although public records do not identify the caller, the person says they have a 3-year-old child. Five months later, inspectors report being unable to get inside during an annual inspection. The complaint is mistakenly closed as a “duplicate,” even though records show it is not. The fire occurs one month later.
Rafel León, executive director of the listed owner at the time of the fire, the Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation, said the Fire Department is mistaken in its assertion that common-area smoke detectors were not working at the time of the fire. León said all violations cited during his agency’s ownership were repaired.
March 21, 2018 | 2435 W. Gunnison Ave.
Man dies trapped in attic apartment
Frangos dies trapped in an illegally converted attic apartment in Lincoln Square. The only staircase leading to his unit is engulfed in flames. Investigators determine the fire was caused by smoking materials.
In 2017, then-Ald. Patrick O’Connor’s office files two complaints that the property is being used as an illegal living space, part of a pattern of complaints dating to 2009. Records show inspectors never get inside to investigate any of the complaints until two months before the fire. Then, an inspector documents illegal units and a lack of exits from the attic apartment. The inspector documents how a retractable ladder is being used as a second exit. The case is referred to city lawyers to file suit, but it is not filed in time. A separate administrative hearing case against the landlord is also ongoing at the time of the fire.
One of the owners, Constantina Kokenes, said the violations were only for her garage and hung up.
Oct. 2, 2016 | 6029 S. Throop Ave.
Electrical fire traps, kills woman; survivor hears ‘horrific’ screams
Victims: Evoughn Ware, 56
Ware dies six weeks after suffering burns on half her body during a fire in a two-story Englewood home. The home had no smoke detectors and a faulty electrical system, according to reports from fire investigators. In a lawsuit filed by her family after the fire, another tenant, Sheena Payne, submits a written statement that says, “I could not hear any fire alarms going off and yet I could hear the woman screaming.” Payne adds that the home was overcrowded, without proper entrances and exits from many units. “The sounds of her voice were horrific.” Investigators say overheated wires from a space heater in the living room of Ware’s apartment failed to trip a faulty circuit breaker.
About a month before the fire, a tenant calls 311 at least twice to report electrical violations and no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors. No inspection is conducted prior to the fire, records show. A jury later awards Ware’s family $9.6 million, finding the building’s owner violated the Illinois Smoke Detector Act.
First deputy buildings commissioner Marlene Hopkins said it was a mistake that inspectors in her office failed to prioritize the 311 complaints. “Human error, because it should have been prioritized for us,” she said. “They missed it.”
An attorney who represented the owner, Home Opportunity, in the civil case declined to comment.
Sept. 9, 2018 | 10026 S. Avenue L
Man dies after rescuing grandson in apartment with one exit
Castellano dies of complications from smoke and burn injuries nearly a week after a fire in which he saves his 7-year-old grandson by holding him out the second-floor window of their smoke-filled East Side coach house. The fire started in the enclosed porch, quickly engulfing the only exit. The cause of the fire remains undetermined.
The coach house apartment is long known by city inspectors to have only one exit. The first documented violation is in 2003, when inspectors also cite the landlords for having no smoke detectors. The lack of an exit is documented again in 2010 and 2011. The city drops its Circuit Court case against the landlords in 2014, saying the building is in “full compliance.” However, the city provided no record to show inspectors returned to verify repairs until after the fire. Reached by phone, the building’s owner, Martin Rosas, said the coach house always had a second exit, despite the violations listed on the court case. Castellano’s daughter tells the BGA and the Tribune there was never a rear exit.
Dec. 14, 2014 | 7919-7929 S. Maryland Ave.
Barricaded doors, no smoke alarms listed in fatal arson fire
Victims: Marquita Cooper, 39
Cooper, one of the few remaining tenants in an East Chatham three-story courtyard building, dies in an arson fire started from trash in the stairwell. Tenants are being slowly moved out of the building after “years of neglect,’’ according to the property manager at the time. Firefighters report hearing no smoke alarms and that a front door is barricaded with a metal cover. Firefighters find Cooper by a bathtub and describe her as “unrecognizable” due to the severity of burns.
In April 2014, the city receives a 311 complaint reporting the back door is nailed shut. Six months before the fire, inspectors cite the landlord for more than three dozen violations, including a failure to “provide sufficient means of egress.” Inspectors note a front entry door is screwed shut. Building officials request city lawyers file suit against the owner, but records show no case is filed until after the fire. One day before the blaze, inspectors return to investigate complaints of no heat or hot water but leave after one tenant reports they are in the process of moving out. Inspectors cannot get inside the unit where the complaint originated. The inspector makes no mention of barricaded doors at that time.
Eric Janssen, president of Chicago Real Estate Resources, which oversaw the property at the time, said there were smoke alarms and the locked metal coverings were intended to secure vacant portions of the building not near Cooper’s apartment. He said she was among the last remaining tenants.
Jan. 9, 2017 | 1140 S. Francisco Ave.
Body found three months after abandoned building fire
Victims: Curtis Green, 57
Green dies after a trash fire broke out in an enclosed rear porch at an abandoned Lawndale two-story building the city was supposed to secure weeks earlier. Firefighters at the scene note the vacant building is “open and dangerous” but do not find Green’s body. Three months later, a scavenger finds Green’s body under debris in the damaged building.
In 2016, fire officials notify building officials that squatters may be living inside after paramedics are called to treat someone injured in the backyard. Inspectors cite the owner for failing to keep the abandoned building secure and send the case to Circuit Court. One month before the fire, a judge grants the city authority to board up and secure the premises. Records provided by the city do not indicate officials ever did so.
The property owners, Clara and Vera Major, could not be reached.
Aug. 26, 2018 | 2224 S. Sacramento Ave.
Historic tragedy: 10 children die at sleepover
Ten children — from 3 months to 16 years old — die from injuries suffered in a backyard Little Village coach house officials say has no working smoke detectors and obstructed exits. Police reports indicate the pre-dawn fire started outside the two-unit coach house. Records of the Fire Department investigation are unavailable because the high-profile case remains under investigation by federal authorities. A report from the state fire marshal says contributing factors in the deaths include the “crowd situation” and “limited exits.”
The landlord racks up dozens of serious violations dating back more than a decade, including a lack of working smoke detectors and electrical problems. The building is the subject of an administrative hearings case in 2015 over several safety violations, including a lack of smoke detectors in the rear coach house apartment where the children later die. The city’s hearing officer closes the case after accepting close-up photos from the building’s owner, Merced Gutierrez, of smoke detectors as proof repairs had been made. The officer does not order any re-inspections.
During two separate inspections in the three months before the fire, city inspectors find 35 violations at the property, including serious electrical violations and a lack of smoke detectors at the main building. A month later, city lawyers file suit against the owner in Circuit Court. A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department said the office did not move more quickly because the case did not involve immediate “life safety” violations. The fire occurs one month before the first court date.
Gutierrez could not be reached. His lawyer, former Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica, said he did not trust any assessments of the property by city inspectors and said Gutierrez “did everything that they requested.” Peraica said the children’s deaths were an unfortunate byproduct of a slow-moving eviction process involving the coach house tenants. He said tenants disabled smoke alarms and may have caused any egress problems. “He was not an absentee landlord,” Peraica said of Gutierrez. “This was very traumatic for him and his wife.”
June 29, 2019 | 8120-8122 S. Kedzie Ave.
Electrical problem sparks blaze near amputee’s bed
Victims: Joyce Marie Glenn, 69
Glenn dies after a fire in her Ashburn apartment’s bedroom. Her partner unsuccessfully tries to put out the fire using water from the bathroom, according to a police report. He also attempts to drag Glenn, an amputee, to the apartment’s balcony. She is pronounced dead at a hospital. Investigators determine the electrical fire was started by extension cords.
City inspectors repeatedly find a defective electrical outlet — among other safety violations — in Glenn’s unit dating to 2010, when they cite the owner for the broken outlet, missing smoke detectors and other violations. The city sends the case to administrative hearings, but it is dismissed after the landlord presents tenant letters he requested attesting to repairs. In two visits in 2015 and 2017, inspectors again note a defective electrical outlet and missing smoke detectors. The city sues the owner of the building over unrelated violations, and that case is still in Cook County Circuit Court at the time of the fire.
Long Nguyen and Mason Lee, listed as owners of the building, could not be reached.
March 11, 2016 | 814-824 E. 82nd St.
Locked burglar bars delay firefighters
Victims: Gerald R. Butler, 54
Butler dies in a three-story East Chatham apartment building after firefighters are delayed by locked burglar bars on his front door. The Cook County medical examiner’s office lists the cause of death as cocaine and alcohol toxicity, with burns and smoke inhalation as contributing factors. His body is found in the hallway. Investigators determine the fire started in Butler’s bedding, possibly from smoking materials.
Two months before the fire, inspectors cite the building owner for illegally barricading most apartment doors with locked burglar bars, the eighth time in seven years the owner is cited for the same violation. Building department officials ask city lawyers to file a Circuit Court case against the owner. The case is not filed before the fire.
Stark Ventures, the owner of the building at the time of the fire, was dissolved in 2018. Its manager, Javier Gonzalez, could not be reached.
Feb. 25, 2017 | 6653 S. Champlain Ave.
Two girls die after family uses stove to keep warm
Victims: Samari Nicole Grace, 2; Ziya Michelle Grace, 7 months
The two young girls die after a pot of boiling water melts on the stove and falls on clothing in their basement apartment in West Woodlawn. The boiling pot is the family’s way to keep warm, records show.
For three years before the fire, residents complain at least five times to the city about a lack of heat. They also complain about an apartment with only one exit. In one of the complaint cases, there is no record of city inspectors responding. In the others, records show, inspectors visit the property but cannot get inside to investigate. One inspector examines the outside and cites the landlord for unrelated code violations. The administrative hearing case is closed after city lawyers say they plan to refile the case in Circuit Court because of the severity of the violations. Records show that case is never filed.
Jimmie Hampton, the property owner, could not be reached. Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department who no longer works for the city, said in an interview before his departure: “I think it’s fair to say that this case was not addressed as it should have been.”
Jan. 22, 2014 | 4214 W. 16th St.
Man trapped in ‘abandoned’ building
Victims: Ezell Brown, 68
Brown dies after a fire starts on the enclosed rear porch of a Lawndale two-flat listed in police reports as “abandoned.” The police report says he was “caught in the fire with no apparent escape.” Investigators are unable to determine the official cause.
Residents complain twice to city officials in 2009 about being unable to use a rotting back door as an exit. Inspectors are unable to get inside but cite the owner for unrelated problems visible from the outside. A city hearing officer closes the case after the landlord fails to show up for an administrative hearing.
The owner at the time of the fire is now deceased.
Feb. 13, 2014 | 519-527 S. Lavergne Ave.
‘Rotting’ porch leaves residents with no exit
Victims: Albert Lawson Jr., 64
Lawson — recovering from surgery to both knees — burns to death in his bedroom after bed pads and other paper touch a space heater in a two-story, eight-unit South Austin building with a dilapidated back porch and no rear exit.
Ten months before the fire, a Circuit Court judge orders a city contractor to get bids to fix the dilapidated back porch after years of inaction from violations first cited in 2008, including a lack of smoke detectors and a dangerous back porch that allows no rear exit. Records indicate the process was delayed because the property owner did not get the necessary permits for the repairs. Two months before the fire, the judge orders the city to proceed with the repairs despite the owner’s lack of cooperation. The repairs are not completed at the time of the fire. Three days after the fire, a tenant in another apartment calls 311 to report all back doors are boarded up due to the ongoing porch construction, blocking required exit routes.
Monserrate Hernandez, one of the people listed as responsible for the property in court records, could not be reached.
June 8, 2014 | 903 N. Lawndale Ave.
On demolition list for years, building catches fire, traps one
Victims: Sarah H. Amann, 30
Amann is trapped in a two-story Humboldt Park building on a city list to be demolished for nearly two years. Amann and another person are on the second floor when the building catches fire. The other person jumps from a window, while Amann is trapped inside a room with boarded-up windows. Investigators say an open flame ignited trash.
Nearly two years before the fire, city officials obtain a court order to demolish the abandoned property, but it is not torn down. During the same two years, city inspectors do not respond to several complaints the building is not properly secured and is occupied and being used for illegal activity.
Ownership of the vacant building at the time of the fire was in dispute.
Aug. 14, 2014 | 3407-3409 W. Armitage Ave.
Woman dies in building city ordered closed
Victims: Carmen M. Medina, 43
Medina dies in an upstairs apartment of a Logan Square building city inspectors ordered boarded up the year before after an electrical fire. Investigators say Medina is one of at least three people squatting at the property when a mattress catches fire in the building. Police reports say the squatters got in through a window.
Less than a month before the fire, city inspectors — answering a complaint of squatters living in the dangerous building — cite the landlord and send the case to city lawyers to file suit to tear it down. Records show no further enforcement action before the fire.
Property owner Mohamed Abdelfattah said the property was boarded up and secure after a previous fire. He said he was waiting on a settlement from insurance when people broke into the building. Abdelfattah said he was unaware inspectors visited the building before the second fire, nor that they cited him.
“Unfortunately, you can board and build it today, and people with determination can go back in the next day,” said Marlene Hopkins, the city’s first deputy buildings commissioner. “People do what they do. They make decisions to work their way into properties that they don’t belong in.”
Sept. 8, 2014 | 11238-11242 S. Vernon Ave.
Four children die in top-floor apartment
Four children die in a three-story courtyard building in Roseland when fire spreads from a second-floor apartment to their third-floor unit. There are no working smoke detectors in either apartment. Fire investigators report an open flame ignited a chair in a second-floor vacant unit with a broken front door.
In the years before the fire, the landlords are cited more than 150 times for violations including a lack of smoke detectors and broken doors — issues that exist when the fire started. Thirteen days before the fire, a representative for the landlord appears at an administrative hearing over violations at the property, including a lack of smoke detectors. After agreeing to a two-month extension in the case, the hearing officer asks the representative to confirm the building has working smoke detectors. The representative says yes, offering to show documents signed by tenants as proof.
“You can bring that back with you, I’m just asking today,” the hearing officer responded.
Tahir Sheikh, who owned the courtyard building at the time of the fire, declined to comment.
Nov. 9, 2014 | 5731-5735 N. Kimball Ave.
Boy dies in building with no smoke alarms after landlord gets warning letter
Ans dies after his family is trapped by flames on the third floor of a Hollywood Park apartment building. The boy’s parents throw two siblings out the window before jumping themselves; the four survived the fall. Family members — along with other tenants from the building — later sue the landlord for failing to address fire safety issues. The cause of the fire remains undetermined.
Records show the landlord is repeatedly cited by city inspectors for the building’s lack of working smoke detectors in both apartments and common areas. The most recent citation comes in 2012, more than two years before the fire. At the time, the inspector sends a warning letter to the landlord rather than enforcing the case through administrative hearings or Circuit Court. After the fire, inspectors again cite the landlord for smoke detector violations. This time, the city sends the case to Circuit Court.
The owner of the building, Mihai Horga, says only one smoke detector in the hallway was out of batteries and all others were working. Building officials say their policies now prohibit inspectors from choosing the more lenient warning letter option when smoke detector violations are found.
Feb. 15, 2015 | 1972 W. Devon Ave.
Deaf man dies when fire tears through rooming house
England, who is deaf, dies in a West Rogers Park single-family home illegally converted into multiple apartments. After the fire, tenants tell investigators they had no heat and the building was overcrowded. Officials are unable to determine the cause of the fire.
In 2008, the owners pay a fine after being cited for allowing too many people to live in the residence, a problem that dates to 2002. While the 2008 case is ongoing, the city receives two other complaints from police and fire officials alleging the house is too crowded. One of those complaints is closed without an inspection, and the other is referred by inspectors to a city hearing officer. The city provides no records showing a hearing took place. A county judge levies a $500 fine and dismisses the case without requiring a re-inspection to determine whether the conditions were addressed.
The owner of the building at the time of the fire, Thanh Lap Nguyen, could not be reached.
March 14, 2015 | 6643 S. Racine Ave.
Man dies in building ruled uninhabitable for years
Victims: James Johnson, 55
Johnson dies in a two-story Englewood house ordered boarded up years earlier following dozens of safety violations. Investigators report the fire was caused by either smoking materials or an electrical issue. No electrical analysis is conducted because the building appears to be uninsured, the Fire Department reports. The official cause remains undetermined.
For more than a decade before the fire, the property owners are in housing court over dozens of serious safety violations. In 2008, a housing court judge orders the building boarded up and secured. In 2009, the city receives a 311 complaint that the building is not fully boarded up. Inspectors report the building is secure but cite the owner for failing to register the property as vacant, a requirement that allows city officials to hold owners accountable. The case is closed after the fire when the owner is fined.
The owner of the building at the time, CRN Management, was dissolved in 2012. The company manager at the time, Angela White-Smith, could not be reached.
Dec. 18, 2015 | 4431 W. Congress Parkway
Man dies in unstable red ‘X’ building under demolition order
Victims: Harvey Cobbs Jr., 67
Cobbs dies in a two-story West Garfield Park apartment building a judge ordered torn down at the request of city lawyers more than two years before the fire. At the time of the blaze, the building is marked by the building department with a red “X” to warn firefighters the structure is unstable. Firefighters do not enter until a bystander reports there may be a homeless person inside the vacant building. They find Cobbs under a collapsed wooden wall. The cause of the fire, which started in a mattress, remains undetermined.
In 2013, city officials request a judge order the building destroyed. Over the next year, the city receives at least three more complaints that the building is open and occupied, but records show the city did not carry out the demolition order until after the fire.
Representatives for the building’s owner at the time, 4431 W Congress, could not be reached. The corporation was dissolved in 2013, records show.
March 30, 2016 | 1000 N. Hamlin Ave.
Elderly couple caught in fire; no smoke detectors found
Victims: Fannie Mae Thomas, 72
Thomas dies and her husband is injured after a fire starts in their second-floor Humboldt Park apartment. Firefighters find no smoke detectors in the apartment or a common area. The husband tells investigators sparks flew from an outlet powering a TV and VCR. The official cause of the fire remains undetermined.
In 2011, city inspectors cite the owner for missing smoke detectors and several other safety violations while responding to a 311 complaint about a bolted rear exit. The city files an administrative hearings case against the owner for the third time in two years. An inspector is unable to get inside for a follow-up inspection, reporting the owner did not show up at the scheduled time. At the next hearing, the landlord submits photos and other documents as evidence he fixed some of the violations, but records of the case provided by the city include nothing about the missing smoke detectors. The case is closed with no fines or follow-up.
Taman Najjar, the building’s owner, denied any smoke detectors were missing from common areas at the time of the fire. He said he regularly provided smoke detectors to his tenants, and if any were missing or not working it was likely because tenants removed or disabled them.
April 1, 2016 | 310-312 N. Central Ave.
Firefighter falls down elevator shaft in fatal fire
Victims: Floyd DePaul Singleton, 63
Singleton is found dead under his wheelchair on the second floor of a four-floor South Austin building after a fire that investigators say started because of misused smoking materials. Firefighters at the scene say they have difficulty getting to the disabled man through heavy smoke. The response is further complicated when a firefighter opens an unlocked service door and falls through an open elevator shaft, fracturing his foot. Fire officials later note the improper handle on the service door is a code violation.
In the years before the fire, city inspectors cite the owner for numerous violations, including elevator problems. The most recent violation for failing to maintain a safe elevator comes less than two months before the blaze. The case goes to administrative hearings but does not proceed before the fire. Two days after the fire, inspectors again cite the owner for the same elevator violations.
A message left at a number of the building owner, Apartment Investors XVII, now named Realty Consulting Services, was not returned. An email received no response.
Aug. 23, 2016 | 8100-8114 S. Essex Ave.
Four die in building without smoke detectors
Four people — including three small children — die in two separate units on the top floor of a three-story South Chicago apartment complex in an arson fire. Firefighters hear no smoke detectors as they arrive to fight the blaze. Tenants tell investigators breaking glass and the screams of other residents were the only warnings. Some jump from windows to escape. Police determine the fire was set in the back and interior stairs over a dispute with a tenant in another unit. Investigators find no smoke detectors in many of the 12 units and common areas after the fire, records show. The man accused of setting the fires dies awaiting trial two years later.
The building’s owners are later charged by federal authorities with falsely promising investors that the dilapidated building — as well as others on the South Side — was being rehabilitated. The Securities and Exchange Commission settled the case against the owners in 2019 and ordered the buildings sold to recoup some of the investors’ losses. The owner, a real estate investment company named Equitybuild, was shut down by the SEC in 2018.
Building owners are cited at least seven times since 2005 for smoke detector violations. In 2012, four years before the fire, city lawyers accept a photograph of a smoke detector as evidence of compliance. The city provides no record to show inspectors went back to verify the detectors were installed. During annual inspections for each of the following three years — before the fire — inspectors are unable to get inside to check for smoke detectors and other potential violations, records show.
Aug. 27, 2016 | 5422 S. Laflin St.
Arson fire in long-troubled building kills three
Victims: Dorise S. Anderson, 55; Danny Darling, 58; Tommie Darling, 61
Three people die of injuries from an arson fire in a two-story Back of the Yards building with illegally partitioned units and no working smoke detectors. Firefighters find Anderson and the older Darling dead at the scene, and the younger Darling — who jumped from a top-floor window — dies after weeks in a coma. Another tenant tells investigators she also jumped from a window because of blocked exits. She also said drugs are frequently sold from the house and rival drug gangs may have set the fire.
The owner is sued by the city in Cook County Circuit Court after a 2012 complaint that the building is overcrowded. Inspectors find the building partitioned into additional units without proper permits, among other safety problems. In 2015, inspectors revisit the site as part of the court case and find an unsafe, rotting back porch. The judge grants the owner a six-month delay in the case three months before the fire.
The owner of the building at the time of the fire was the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., which bought it at auction the year before after the previous owner, Robert Letinsky, died.
Jan. 27, 2017 | 1723 N. Pulaski Ave.
Man dies in attic apartment with only one exit
Victims: Santos Diaz, 67
Diaz dies in a Logan Square building previously cited for an unauthorized apartment. An open flame ignites clothing in an illegally converted attic apartment with only one exit. Investigators do not determine the source of the open flame.
A 2008 complaint of inadequate heat prompts inspectors to cite the owner for an illegally converted basement apartment. After a hearing in which an owner appears with an interpreter, a hearing officer orders the owner to return the illegal apartment to its original condition. The officer does not order inspectors to go back and check, and records show none ever do.
Rosa Jimbo and Juan Cambi, the owners, did not return a voicemail message.
Feb. 15, 2017 | 4526 N. Sheridan Road
Stovetop fire kills man trying to stay warm
Victims: Donald Roy Davidson, 85
Davidson dies from burns suffered after he leaves all four burners on his stovetop ignited in his Uptown apartment. A neighbor later tells the BGA and the Tribune he believes it was an effort to keep warm. During the fire, the same neighbor uses a fire extinguisher to break into Davidson’s apartment and put out the fire.
Several years before the fire, city inspectors cite the owner on two separate occasions for a lack of heat. In both cases, hearing officers close the cases after imposing thousands of dollars in fines. Between then and the fire, at least seven more complaints for lack of heat are logged. Inspectors repeatedly visit the building and report the heat is adequate. After the fire, the building owner is once again cited for lack of heat after inspectors report tenants are using stovetops to keep warm.
Marcus Sulejmani of Le Sheridan, who records show bought the building after the no-heat citations were issued, did not return a telephone message left at his home.
March 10, 2017 | 3198 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Alderman complains before deadly fire
Victims: Theodore P. Duda, 63
Duda dies in his apartment in a three-story Logan Square building with empty retail space on the first floor. Firefighters find no smoke detectors in his unit. Investigators say the fire likely started from smoking materials in his apartment.
City inspectors repeatedly cite the owner for broken or missing smoke detectors both before and after the fatal fire. In 2013, the city receives at least two complaints from the offices of Ald. Ray Suarez, 31st, requesting thorough inspections to verify smoke detectors are installed. Both cases are closed four years later, and the city provided no records of any related inspections. In 2015, inspectors visit the property but cannot get inside. They cite the landlord for several unrelated violations visible from the outside. The city sues the owner in Circuit Court over the exterior violations, and the case is ongoing at the time of the fire. One year after the fire, building inspectors again cite the owner for missing smoke detectors in common areas.
The owner, Ammar Bazari, could not be reached.
July 11, 2017 | 3521 W. Douglas Ave.
Man dies after electrical fire, as brother attempts rescue
Victims: Travez Curtis, 33
Curtis suffers burns to 90% of his body and dies after a fire starts near his bed in his Lawndale apartment. Fire investigators say the fire possibly started with a fan plugged into an extension cord, and they note two tripped circuit breakers. No official cause is determined. Curtis’ body is found blocking the bedroom door after he apparently stumbled into the burning fan. His brother later tells police he could hear cries for help through the blocked door.
The city sues the landlord in 2011 over electrical violations, but the case goes unresolved for years. In 2014, a complaint about general disrepair in the building is unaddressed because of the ongoing lawsuit. Three months after the fire, a judge orders the property closed to renters.
Two voicemail messages left for Scott Michael Porter, the owner at the time of the fire, were not returned.
Aug. 17, 2017 | 1822 S. Drake Ave.
Lawndale building on tear-down list catches fire, kills man
Victims: Jake Woods, 58
Woods dies in a two-story Lawndale building under an active court order for demolition. Fire investigators list burning rubbish on the rear porch as the cause of the fire. The flames spread to two buildings on either side of the property.
More than two years before the fire, a Cook County Circuit Court judge issues an order to tear down the dangerous, abandoned building at the request of city lawyers. The demolition order is not carried out. A year later, the city receives a complaint the building is unsecured and occupied. Records show the city does not conduct an inspection in response to the complaint.
Christina Flanagan, the last known owner, could not be reached.
Sept. 23, 2017 | 5827 S. Prairie Ave.
Body found days after fire spreads from vacant building
Victims: Ricky Anderson, 56
Anderson dies in the building next door to the four-unit Washington Park building that initially caught fire. His body is found two days later in the rubble. Family members tell investigators they evacuated and were unsure if he was in the apartment at the time. Fire officials are unable to determine the cause of the fire because of the extent of the damage.
In 2015, the city sues the owners of the vacant building where the fire started. The suit lists several safety violations, including buckling exterior walls with parts falling off and posing a danger to passersby. The judge appoints a city contractor to make necessary repairs. Three weeks before Anderson’s death, another fire at the building — a frequent haven for squatters — prompts city inspectors to cite the owner for failing to secure the property.
Four days before the fatal fire, a judge gives inspectors authority to break into the building to conduct an interior inspection, but the city provided no record an inspection was done.
Reached by telephone, Alicia Long, the building’s owner, declined to be interviewed.
Nov. 17, 2017 | 1843 S. Hamlin Ave.
Man dies 19 months after judge orders building torn down
Victims: Ira Joe Wallace, 61
Wallace dies in a two-story Lawndale building ordered destroyed as vacant and dangerous by a judge at the city’s request more than a year before the fire. Investigators say the fire started in the rear stairwell and spread to the roof.
Since 2014, city inspectors repeatedly cite the landlord for safety violations following neighborhood 311 complaints. Nineteen months before the fire, city lawyers request a court order to destroy the vacant building, citing extensive debris, termites, and inoperable heating and plumbing. The court order is never carried out.
A representative of JDP Groups, listed in public records as one of the owners at the time, declined to comment.
Dec. 29, 2017 | 546 N. Ridgeway Ave.
Elderly man dies in family home with no smoke detectors
Jackson dies on the first floor of a two-unit East Garfield Park building he owned for decades. Firefighters report they heard no smoke detectors as they arrived to fight the blaze, and later reports indicate none were found in the building. Investigators say the cause was likely a natural gas-powered space heater. No official cause was listed.
City inspectors send Jackson a warning letter after a 2015 inspection reported missing smoke detectors and several other violations. The inspection follows at least two complaints, one for unsafe conditions and another for bedbugs and no running water. Building officials say they sent a warning letter instead of referring the case to Cook County Circuit Court because it was owner occupied.
Jan. 19, 2018 | 949-955 E. 86th St.
Man dies in fire after locked burglar-bar complaint
Owens dies after a fire in an East Chatham apartment he shares with his grandmother. She tells a 911 operator she retreated to her first-floor bedroom after the fire began and can’t open windows. A firefighter crawls past flames to reach the woman and breaks her window for ventilation. Photos of the scene later show windows covered by burglar bars. Firefighters say the fire started when a blanket caught fire in the living room.
In 2016, the Fire Department files a complaint about tenants being unable to remove first-floor burglar bars on the windows. The complaint is closed after inspectors are unable to get inside.
The owner, Jim Pappas, could not be reached. Building officials said they left a sticker for the owner to follow up and he never did so.
April 8, 2018 | 2454 S. Spaulding Ave.
Man dies in ‘death trap’ after years of complaints
Victims: Luis Bruno, 63
Bruno dies in a Little Village home converted into a 16-unit rooming house, according to a report filed by a city inspector the day after the fire, referring to the home as a “death trap.” Fire investigators say there were no working smoke detectors at the time of the fire, which possibly was started by a tenant playing with a lighter.
City officials receive at least 10 complaints in an eight-year period before the fire, including unsafe electrical wiring, no heat and dangerous overcrowding. One caller reports tenants are living five to a room. Another complaint comes in from a fire official about a lack of fire alarms. During a 2011 inspection, the owner is cited for missing smoke detectors, inoperable fire extinguishers and problems with unsafe exits. A hearing officer closes the case after city lawyers say an inspector reported many of the violations were fixed. The landlord also provides a receipt for a carbon monoxide detector to the hearing officer, who dismisses the case with a $500 fine. Three months later, a Chicago police officer files a complaint about “very unsafe conditions” and overcrowding at the home. Inspectors can’t get in to investigate but cite the owner for exterior violations such as locked gates and broken windows.
Armando Aguilar, the building’s owner, did not return a voicemail left at a number listed in advertisements to rent rooms in the building.
April 30, 2018 | 3251-3259 W. Olive Ave.
No-heat complaints precede fire; electric heaters possible cause
Victims: David S. Weiss, 63
Weiss dies after a fire starts inside his third-floor apartment in a Hollywood Park courtyard condominium building. Investigators are unable to determine the exact cause because of the extensive damage but note a stand-up portable heater and other electronics near where the fire began. Investigators request an electrical engineer analyze the devices.
Tenants, including Weiss, had long complained of inadequate heat. In 2012, inspectors find the building’s heat is insufficient but choose to send the landlord a warning letter. Over 39 days in the winter of 2014, the city receives five more complaints of no heat. Inspectors confirm the problem and route violations to city lawyers to file suit in Circuit Court. Records show no case is filed.
Mateja Jovanovic, the owner of Weiss’s condominium unit, said there were no problems related to the heat for the five years he lived in the unit. He said his insurance investigator reported the fire likely started from faulty wiring in the living room, which is where the space heater was powered. Representatives of the condominium association did not return telephone messages.
July 8, 2018 | 1421-1423 E. 67th Place
Toddler dies after barricaded doors slow firefighter response
Victims: Maqkwone X. Jones, 3
Maqkwone dies from smoke inhalation injuries suffered in a second-floor Grand Crossing apartment during a fire that started in an enclosed porch a floor above, records show. The only other person at home is the roommate of the boy’s foster parent. She tells investigators she didn’t know the boy was in the apartment when she evacuated. Investigators are unable to determine the cause of the fire because of the extent of damage. Firefighters report having to breach scissor gates and other locks to fight the fire.
A year and a half before the fatal fire, city inspectors cite the landlords for several safety problems, including the locked bars obstructing exits, missing doorknobs, broken doors, a lack of smoke detectors and other violations. The inspector also notes some walls were built without required fire-resistant materials. City lawyers take the case to administrative hearings, where the owner pleads “liable,” acknowledging the violations. A hearing officer levies a $1,040 fine but does not require proof that the violations are repaired. At the time of the fire, the building is owned by the Better Housing Foundation, a nonprofit low-income housing provider that came under federal scrutiny following a 2018 Tribune investigation into its misuse of money meant to repair its dilapidated buildings.
An attorney for the Better Housing Foundation declined to comment.
July 12, 2018 | 1300-1310 W. 57th Place
Brutal attack, arson kills woman in building without smoke detectors
Victims: Ta’anda Shatawn Hall, 38
Hall — a mother of three — dies in an arson fire after being assaulted in an eight-unit Englewood apartment building. Although she was severely beaten, the Cook County medical examiner’s office determines smoke inhalation contributed to her death. Her boyfriend is charged with murder and arson in the case, and remains in custody awaiting trial. The first 911 call isn’t received until roughly 17 minutes after the man is seen leaving the building. When firefighters arrive, they report neither hearing nor seeing any smoke detectors.
In 2010, building inspectors cite the owner for an inoperable smoke detector in one unit, no heat, lack of hot water and a missing carbon monoxide detector. Records indicate the Department of Buildings asks city lawyers to sue in Circuit Court, but the case is not filed. Lamont Maybon, the building’s owner since 2014, said firefighter reports indicating there were no working smoke detectors at the time of the fire are incorrect.
City building officials say the fire was the result of a crime and unrelated to building violations. They also said the city typically does not file lawsuits against property owners during the holidays.
“Most of the courtrooms are closed down,” said Marlene Hopkins, the first deputy buildings commissioner. “So yes, typically that’s our protocol, is to try to work through this. Because the last thing you want and/or need is to displace people during the holidays.”
Oct. 5, 2018 | 5752 S. Hermitage Ave.
Woman dies in building ordered vacated for years
Victims: Vicki Diggs, 48
Diggs dies in a West Englewood building a judge orders vacated and secured more than three years before the fire. Investigators say rubbish was set on fire in the building. Investigators interview a man who says the property has been “a problem in the neighborhood” for a decade.
As recently as six months before the fire, city inspectors respond to a complaint about the dangerous abandoned building being unsecured and occupied. The owner is cited for failing to register the building as vacant, a requirement that allows city officials to hold owners accountable. Records show no further action on this violation until after the fatal fire.
City building officials said it was the owner’s responsibility under court orders to make sure no one was living there.
Roman Gekko Holdings, which was listed as the last known owner, was dissolved in 2014, records show.
March 22, 2019 | 5807 S. May St.
Family’s desperate attempts to save 5-year-old fail
Kaitlynn dies in an Englewood two-flat, her body severely burned. Investigators report finding space heaters in nearly every room and no smoke detectors. The girl’s mother told the Tribune and the BGA she woke up to screams; records state the smoke and intense heat forced everyone to evacuate. Investigators do not determine the official cause of the fire but cite “electrical artifacts” as the potential culprit.
Three years before the fire, the city receives a complaint about no heat in the building but inspectors report being turned away by someone in the building. At the time, the landlords lived in the building. After the fire, a landlord tells investigators the building had smoke detectors and the building wasn’t cold. Yvonne Barber, the building’s owner, declined to comment.
First deputy buildings commissioner Marlene Hopkins said: “The fire death was due to the family getting out of the building and leaving the child behind. So I don’t know how you leave a kid behind and everybody gets out.”
April 27, 2019 | 3318-3320 N. Lake Shore Drive
Unattended stove sparks high-rise fire
Victims: Ann DeGrazia, 85
DeGrazia dies from burn injuries eight months after a fire investigators say started when she left the stove unattended while cooking in her Lakeview East high-rise apartment. A neighbor calls 911 to report smoke in the hallway. They encounter thick smoke in the hallway as they try to find the blaze. Firefighters also report they had to connect their hose 250 feet away from DeGrazia’s fifth-floor apartment.
The city receives scores of tenant complaints about unsafe conditions in the building in the years before the fire. Owners of the building also miss city deadlines to submit and implement a Life Safety Evaluation Plan, a city requirement for older high-rise residential buildings to install minimum fire safety precautions in lieu of a sprinkler system. Finally, in 2015, city building officials report the owner has implemented the life safety plan, but inspectors later cite him again for many of the same fire safety violations, including missing emergency lighting and a lack of fire doors, which help prevent flames and smoke from spreading. The building owner is also repeatedly cited for broken fire pumps, a part of the emergency water supply system for firefighting. It is unclear from reports whether this issue is related to the reason the nearest connection was 250 feet away.
Elzie Higginbottom, listed as the owner on city records and a principal developer of thousands of apartment units throughout the Midwest, declined to be interviewed.
Dec. 28, 2019 | 1908 W. 48th St.
Fire kills man in attic apartment with no second exit
Victims: Eliseo Lazarin, 60
Lazarin dies in an attic apartment in Back of the Yards in a room with five space heaters, but because of the extent of the damage, firefighters cannot conclusively determine whether the space heaters contributed. “However, they should be noted as relevant due to the subject apartment having no gas service at the time of the fire,” one investigator wrote. A state fire marshal report asserts an “egress problem” contributed to the death.
Six years before the fire, a 311 caller reports the building has no fire exits, smoke detectors or hot water. The inspector closes the complaint with a warning after failing to get inside to investigate. Records show city inspectors have no other interactions with the property before the fire.
Marlene Hopkins, the city’s first deputy buildings commissioner, noted no further complaints were registered after inspectors were not able to investigate the first complaint. “It was apparent that the problem had been resolved, because had it not, trust me, the tenant would have continued to call us,” Hopkins said. “They chain call if it continues and the landlord is not being responsive.”
Francisco J. Vasquez, the owner, did not return a telephone message.
Sources: Chicago Tribune reporting, Chicago Department of Buildings, Chicago police and fire reports
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