Expert advised charges ‘could be pursued’ in Aspen carbon monoxide case
ASPEN, Colorado – An expert witness for prosecutors in the carbon monoxide deaths in Aspen told investigators that whoever installed the boiler exhaust pipes in the home where a family died was “reckless” because of the poor quality of the work, according to a police report.
In December 2008, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office enlisted the services of Mark Passamaneck of Wheat Ridge-based Entropy Engineering Corp. to examine the boiler system in the house at 10 Popcorn Lane, just east of Aspen. Source Gas recommended him to the sheriff’s office as a third-party expert. Entropy Engineering’s website said the firm provides forensic expert witness, reconstruction and analysis of issues involved in engineering.
Passamaneck examined the utility room in the house with Deputy Brad Gibson on Dec. 4, 2008, and reported “that he found several items there [that] were irregular,” Gibson’s report says.
“He told me at one point the home’s mechanical system was ‘all jacked up,'” the report says. “Passamaneck said the exhaust pipe for the Munchkin boiler had come apart, thereby putting carbon monoxide into the utility room. Passamaneck said there appeared to be some type of glue on the end of the exhaust pipe; however, he said it was not glue for PVC pipe.”
While performing tests to confirm that the faulty piping from the boiler was pumping carbon emissions into the house, Passamaneck assessed the work he observed for investigators.
“Passamaneck told us that at the very least he thought the installer of the exhaust pipes for the Munchkin was reckless,” Gibson’s report says. “He said he believed the installation was not done to a reasonable community standard.”
Passamaneck told the deputies he would be willing to testify to that effect. “My impression from speaking with Passamaneck was that he thought criminal charges could be pursued against the installer of the exhaust pipes,” Gibson wrote.
The sheriff’s office ultimately concluded that criminal conduct did not cause the deaths. The 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office seated a grand jury and began deliberating the case in July 2009.
The subcontractor who allegedly installed the boiler and two inspectors for the Aspen-Pitkin County Building Department were indicted last month on charges related to the tragedy.
Marlin Brown, 56, owner of Roaring Fork Plumbing and Heating in Glenwood Springs, was indicted on four class-five felony charges of criminally negligent homicide as well as four misdemeanors of reckless endangerment.
Building inspector Erik Peltonen, 68, of Basalt, now retired, faces the same charges.
Brian Pawl, 46, a building plan examiner and field inspector for Pitkin County, was indicted on the four misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment.
Passamaneck is listed as a potential prosecution witness.
The sheriff’s office investigation didn’t look into the roles of the building inspectors. There is no indication that criminal charges were contemplated against the inspectors.
Gibson’s report says he contacted Brown on Jan. 27, 2009, to discuss the work at the Popcorn Lane house. That was roughly two months after Parker and Caroline Lofgren of Denver and their two children, Sophie, 8, and Owen, 10, died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the residence.
Brown told Gibson he initially wasn’t sure if the house where the Lofgrens died was the house he worked on. When he saw pictures, however, he allegedly said he knew it was the one.
“Marlin Brown told me, ‘It’s been a long two months,'” Gibson’s report says. “He said he has spent a lot of time thinking about what happened at Popcorn Ln.”
Brown allegedly told Gibson he was unable to recall whether he used glue to connect the joints in the exhaust pipe from the boiler, which powered the snowmelt system, the report says.
Brown provided invoices dated from March through May of 2005 that show he worked on the Popcorn Lane house’s snowmelt system and hot-water system.
Brown’s wife, Patty, told Gibson that it was possible that an apprentice that worked for her husband during parts of 2004 and 2005 had worked on the house. That man told Gibson he quit working for the Browns right as work was getting under way at the Popcorn Lane house. He is listed as a potential witness for the prosecution.
The district attorney’s evidence against the two building inspectors is unknown. Assistant Deputy District Attorney Arnold Mordkin has declined to discuss evidence.
Local building codes required the house to have a carbon monoxide detector, but none was found in the home, according to the sheriff’s office report. County records show that an inspector verified the house had a carbon monoxide detector before a certificate of occupancy was issued, Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said Friday.
A document called an “energy efficiency checklist” is typically used to show if a carbon monoxide detector is part of a project, according to Pitkin County Chief Building Official Anthony Fasaro. By policy, that checklist isn’t part of building department files, he said.
The file for the Popcorn Lane residence shows permission was granted June 1, 2006, to occupy the house. It is a one-story, single-family home and basement totaling 3,100 square feet. It has three bedrooms, three bathrooms and two half-baths.
A building inspection sheet shows the house received a final inspection of the mechanical system on June 22, 2004. It was marked as “accepted” by Peltonen. Three bullet points say the developer must address three issues: “contact fire marshal for sprinkler inspection”; “rebar of footing to be made available for grounding”; and “no occupancy or use allowed before certificate of occupancy is issued.”
Peltonen revisited the site on June 20, 2005, for what was labeled a “building final, mechanical and plumbing” inspection. He rejected the work on three grounds: egress to the master suite, work required in a bathroom and work on a shower door, the report shows.
Another inspection report shows that Pawl accepted a “building final” approval on Aug. 16, 2005. A note says, “Corrections made.”