Owner of Lakewood building that burned knew of fire hazard for years, city officials say

The owner of a commercial building in Lakewood that burned Wednesday was notified by the city and the fire department three times that large amounts of combustible materials needed to be removed from inside the building, city officials said.

In a public abatement hearing Wednesday afternoon regarding a notice and complaint posted on the property at 9616 Gravelly Lake Dr., city officials said the building’s owner, Dirk Mayberry, knew about the fire hazard since at least February 2018.

A fire investigation and a death investigation are ongoing after a body was found in the remains of the building. The victim has not been identified. Lakewood police said it’s too early to tell if a crime was involved in the fire or the person’s death.

“The city has been dealing with this building in excess of five years with, unfortunately, a very large fire load,” City of Lakewood program manager Jeff Gumm said during the hearing. “A property that’s been left primarily vacant, abandoned, and an issue for the city.”

An attorney representing Mayberry, Jason Anderson, said during the hearing his client had “cash liquidity problems” that contributed to his inability to bring the building up to code.

“This has not been a problem he has ignored. It’s just been a problem he’s had a hard time keeping up with,” Anderson said.

Anderson said it wasn’t accurate to call the building abandoned. He said Mayberry had been to the property at least seven times in the past two years to board up the building and that he has paid a locksmith to repair broken locks.

The two-story, 14,186-square-foot building was constructed in 1955, and it is broken up into several units where businesses have operated, including a fabric-cleaning business and second-hand shop.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Gumm laid out a litany of violations at the property that have not been addressed over the years.

He said the building has been damaged by people squatting at the property and that he had seen multiple areas on the second floor where people had clearly been sleeping and storing food. The first and second floor were filled with a large amount of garbage, furniture and wood debris.

“It’s kind of hard to fathom the level of combustibles that is inside of that building,” Gumm said.

A fire marshal from West Pierce Fire & Rescue inspected the property in February 2018 and notified Mayberry that he needed to remove all flammable material. When the marshal returned in April 2021, the inside of the building was still filled with combustibles.

The city inspected the property 11 times between Sept. 10, 2020 and Nov. 30, 2021. Gumm said that 10 times in those inspections, the building was completely unsecured or someone had broken in through doorways or windows.

West Pierce Fire & Rescue was called to the property Nov. 24 to put out a small fire in a storage shed. They were called again Dec. 10 for a report of smoke seen coming from the second floor. When the fire marshal requested to inspect the building that day, Gumm said the owner refused him entry and requested that he come back Dec. 13.

The fire marshal, Gumm and a building official returned that day, but they were again refused entrance.

During the abatement hearing, assistant city attorney Eileen McKain asked Mayberry directly if he knew people were living on the property. He said he didn’t know, and McKain pressed him further.

“So in all the times that you visited or were working on your property, you didn’t notice a queen-size bed, a refrigerator, cooking utensils?” Mckain asked.

“I didn’t. Where was that at?” Mayberry responded.

“In the building. On your property.”

The exchange continued until Mayberry’s attorney stepped in.

Lakewood building official Rafik Gindu is expected to issue a decision Friday afternoon to address “imminent hazardous conditions on the property.” Mayberry’s attorney did not respond to a request for further comment from his client.

In an email, Gindy said once investigations at the property are complete, the owner likely will be given the option to either demolish the property or obtain permits to rebuild it up to code.

This story was originally published by The News Tribune.