The former landlord of a Franklin Borough house that caught fire in March 2021, killing a 13-year-old girl, had his marriage fall apart and his career cut short as a result of the tragedy, but it pales in comparison to the grief the family lives with every day, a Sussex County judge said on Thursday.
"(Walter) Biller suffered his own level of consequences as a result of this, however, they were consequences of his own doing," said Judge Michael Gaus. "Had he taken the most basic and rudimentary responsibilities of a landlord to provide a habitable residence [it] increases the potential that this would not have occurred."
Despite issuing harsh words of criticism, Gaus spared Biller of any jail time and sentenced him to five years probation during the in-person hearing, three months after Biller admitted he failed to install lawful smoke detectors or obtain proper certifications prior to the Nestor Street home fire. Heaven Davenport, a student at Franklin Borough Elementary School, died along with the family's 14-week-old puppy.
Biller pleaded guilty in January to a third-degree charge for violating a public safety law that resulted in serious bodily injury, amended from a second-degree charge for reckless death. Assistant Prosecutor Sahil Kabse said his office was agreeable to a lesser charge because they were mindful that Biller's actions did not cause the fire.
Heaven's parents, Dorothy and Matthew Davenport, their daughter, Justise, and two family members sat in a bench in the courtroom across from Biller on Thursday, several hunched over in tears as more details of the tragic fire were laid out in court in the roughly hour-long hearing.
Biller leased the home to the family in 2019, but authorities determined during a post-fire investigation it was unsafe and uninhabitable, prosecutors said. He failed to obtain a certificate of habitability, smoke detectors did not work and the amount of electrical devices and splitters drawing power to the home exceeded safety standards, Gaus said, reading from an investigation report.
The home's furnace was not operable, despite Biller's argument that it was, and the family was using space heaters to keep warm, Gaus said.
Prosecutors also hinted at, and Gaus acknowledged, an issue that the family was not paying rent — there was an eviction moratorium in place during the COVID-19 pandemic — and as a result, Biller was allowing the home to go into disarray.
Kabse said the case sends a clear message to landlords that they cannot use the excuse of nonpayment of rent to expose tenants, and other people living in these properties, to risk.
"During the pandemic there were multiple landlords that were faced with tenants not paying rent and landlords took it as a 'pass' on their obligations to maintain a safe and habitable residence for these tenants," Kabse said. "To ensure the safety of their tenants is absolute and it's clear from landlord and tenant law, but morally, you can't put a dollar sign above the life and safety of another human being."
Kabse said that while one may feel sympathy for Biller's financial and personal ruin, a much greater loss was felt by the Davenport family whose vivacious and precocious child died as a result of his choices.
"This was a mistake or inaction that could have easily been rectified and he has no one to blame but himself," Kabse added.
Biller, wearing a suit and tie, stood and turned to look at the family when he gave a brief statement: "I am very sorry for this tragedy that occurred and I feel for your loss every day."
His attorney Robert Cascone told the court his client was remorseful and has taken seriously his actions, carrying the burden with him every day. He will never be a landlord again, Cascone said.
Justise Houghtaling, Heaven's sister who was 18 and living in the home at the time of the fire, said that while mindful Biller's actions did not cause the fire, his inaction could have prevented it.
"The detectors could have helped us and she would still be alive," she said.
Houghtaling expressed how hard it was to graduate from high school that same year, knowing her sister was expected to graduate from the eighth grade.
She hopes that this case can help prevent others from having to go through what her family had to endure.
Smoke alarms did not alert the Davenport family to a fire raging inside their home around 10 p.m. on March 19, according to Dorothy Davenport, who spoke to the Herald after the fire.
Authorities said the fire began in the center of the home and was believed to be caused by an electrical issue.
"This is a case that involves tragic consequences of untold proportions that has beset the Davenport family, and that will never change regardless of what crime Mr. Biller may ultimately have pled guilty to," Gaus said.
Biller was ordered to relinquish or otherwise sell all rental properties he owns by the end of the year and not serve as a landlord throughout his probation. He will have to complete 200 hours of community service and pay $35,000 of restitution to the Davenport family. His guilty plea can be used as evidence should the Davenport family file a lawsuit against him, the judge determined.
During a funeral service following her death, Heaven was remembered as a fierce daredevil always willing to give a hug or share a funny thought during times of distress. She was comic relief at times and shared a close bond with her siblings.
Lori Comstock can also be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.
This article originally appeared on New Jersey Herald: Franklin NJ fire: Landlord in fatal fire given probation