Burning embers rained throughout Kensington as the five-alarm fire reached its height early one Monday morning almost seven years ago. It sounded like an explosion, a neighbor said at the time.
Strong winds spread the fire on April 9, 2012, from a vacant five-story factory to six houses. Soon, the roof and wall of a nearby furniture store collapsed, burying four firefighters under timber, debris, and bricks. Two firefighters, Daniel Sweeney and Lt. Robert P. Neary, died under the rubble.
A Philadelphia grand jury chose not to bring criminal charges against the factory building’s owners, but noted how they had allowed it to become “a firetrap” by refusing to do “anything to bring the building up to code,” the Inquirer reported in February 2014.
Now an unrelated federal drug charge has been made against the owner of the furniture store, which collapsed when the fire-ravaged factory fell on it. Prosecutors have charged Richard Knellinger, owner of the Giamari Furniture & Bedding building, with distributing methamphetamine.
Although no criminal charges were filed in direct connection with the fire, Knellinger pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury investigating the blaze and was put on probation.
Last summer, the FBI investigated Knellinger for possible methamphetamine distribution. According to a criminal complaint filed Feb. 1 in federal court in Philadelphia, an FBI informant went into R&R Furniture & Bedding at 2424 Kensington Ave. posing as a customer with $1,400 and looking for meth.
Over the next couple of hours, the complaint says, investigators watched Knellinger exit and enter the building several times, sometimes with the informant, to whom he gave 110.5 grams of methamphetamine.
On Monday, at a detention hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Jordan said 20 pounds of horse tranquilizer also was found at the time of Knellinger’s arrest.
Knellinger, 46, was ordered detained until trial.
Knellinger’s wife and three children attended the hearing in support of the defendant, who appeared in a olive-green prison-issued jumpsuit.
Jordan said initial guidelines suggest Knellinger could face 160 to 210 months in prison if found guilty.
Knellinger’s attorney, Robert B. Mozenter, declined to comment after the hearing.
The arrest resurrects painful memories of the firefighters’ deaths but does nothing to assuage those who lost coworkers and loved ones, said Ed Marks, president of Philadelphia Firefighters and Paramedics Union Local 22.
The charges are too detached from the fire to offer closure,, Marks said. If the owners of the old Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building, which collapsed on the furniture store, were charged, he would feel differently, Marks said.
Knellinger’s store “wouldn’t have collapsed if it wasn’t for the building falling on it,” he said. “Closure would be the people who owned that five-story building, if they were brought to justice.”
The abandoned factory was owned by Brooklyn, N.Y., developers Michael, Nahman, and Yechiel Lichtenstein, who could not be reached for comment.
The deteriorating Buck building was supposed to be converted into apartments, but served as a hub for drug users, neighbors alleged.
After the fire, the Inquirer reported that the Lichtensteins had racked up code violations and tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid real estate taxes. More than 35 civil lawsuits have been filed against York Street Property Development, the business entity that owned the building.
Knellinger pleaded guilty to false swearing in an official proceeding in connection with his testimony to the grand jury, and was sentenced to a year of reporting probation and a year of nonreporting probation.
When Knellinger testified, Assistant District Attorney Edward Cameron said at the time, he lied about being at the fire scene, and denied speaking with Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein and a man they hired to live in the vacant building.
The firefighters who died — Neary, 60, a 37-year veteran and father of three, and Sweeney, 25, the son of a retired fire captain and on the job five years — each had saved people from burning buildings.
“The tragic loss of Robert Neary and Dan Sweeney in the Kensington warehouse fire in 2012 remains an open wound for the city’s firefighters," said Frank Keel, a spokesperson for the union.