For 20 years, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas was a Washington, D.C. private detective specializing in homicide, political corruption and terrorism. Since 1998, Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.

For 20 years, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas was a Washington, D.C. private detective specializing in homicide, political corruption and terrorism. Since 1998, Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.

Rob Douglas: Engle's death demands answers

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Rob Douglas

Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Douglas here.

The untimely death of Steamboat Springs resident David Engle last Sunday was a preventable tragedy that raises questions concerning personal and public responsibility on the part of landlords, the city and tenants.

Mr. Engle was found dead in a converted garage apartment he rented at 705 Pine St. after a small kitchen fire that apparently was sufficient to kill him and his dog. No smoke detector was found in the home. The sad task of stating the obvious fell to city Fire Marshall Jay Muhme, who said, "It's possible that having a smoke detector in the house could have made the outcome different."

Inconceivable as it is in 21st century America, those 16 words are uttered by fire officials every day across our country. It is unconscionable that it takes a needless death to awaken us to responsibilities shirked at so many levels.

One level of responsibility is born by landlords. According to interviews of city and county officials conducted by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, there are questions about the legality of Mr. Engle's residence.

The property where Mr. Engle resided was purchased last fall for $612,000 by Jeff and Trigg Gerber of Steamboat Springs. To date, a certificate of occupancy has not been located for Mr. Engle's unit on the property. Steamboat Springs Department of Planning and Community Development Director Tom Leeson believes the unit is an illegal residence.

But putting aside the legality of this specific property, the bigger public policy question is whether there are landlords in Steamboat ignoring laws designed to safeguard tenants. Based upon statements made by city and county officials, the answer is yes.

Routt County Assessor Mike Kerrigan told the Steamboat Pilot & Today there are many illegal buildings in Steamboat and enforcement of regulations is lax. Bob Keenan, senior planner for the city's Planning Department, stated the department does not routinely search for illegal units and typically issues only one or two citations a year after complaints are made.

In the most revelatory statement of all, Mr. Keenan said, "Obviously, life safety is an issue - but we don't actively pursue illegal units. It's not something we're budgeted for."

I beg to differ with Mr. Keenan. If the city is not actively pursuing illegal units, life safety is not an issue.

When a public official from the department charged with enforcing the city's building laws acknowledges the department doesn't "actively pursue illegal units," somebody at a higher level of responsibility ought to take notice. That body - with ultimate responsibility for enforcing public safety laws - is the Steamboat Springs City Council.

Given the council's responsibility for the welfare of all citizens - landlords and tenants alike - the actions of the council in the wake of Mr. Engle's death are worth monitoring. As citizens, it is our responsibility to see if the council exerts leadership over a government that has ignored illegal residences for far too long.

We will soon know how this City Council responds in the wake of Mr. Engle's death. Will the council pass the buck and continue to look the other way as some form of perverted unwritten affordable housing policy? Or, will the council demonstrate willingness to accept the responsibility voters entrusted to them by investigating the extent of the illegal housing market in Steamboat Springs and enforcing the laws they swore to uphold?

In short, will the council demand answers to the questions raised by Mr. Engle's death?

Don't be optimistic. For City Council President Loui Antonucci to state, "I do not recall in all my years on City Council having people complain about (illegal secondary units)," is breathtaking. The council should not be sitting back, waiting until someone dies to take action on an issue it has known about for years.

Hopefully this council will not squander the challenge Mr. Engle's death has placed before them.

The final level of responsibility is one we cannot ignore. The truth is, to some degree, tenants bear responsibility for the safety of the homes in which they reside. Newspapers, TV and radio are filled with public service announcements reminding us all to install and maintain smoke detectors. That makes it all the more disheartening whenever anyone dies under circumstances where a smoke detector may have changed the outcome.

No tenant should wait for a landlord to provide a smoke detector. If it's a matter of cost, the Steamboat Springs Fire Department will provide smoke detectors for free. Please - if you don't have a smoke detector, get one today.

The best way we can honor the life of Mr. Engle is for City Council, landlords and each of us to shoulder our different responsibilities to protect ourselves and our neighbors.

Douglas can be reached at Douglas@privacytoday.com

Comments

freshair 6 years, 2 months ago

'No smoke detector was found in the home. The sad task of stating the obvious fell to city Fire Marshall Jay Muhme, who said, "It's possible that having a smoke detector in the house could have made the outcome different."'

If you understand the english language, that's your answer.

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Steve Lewis 6 years, 2 months ago

I'm saddened by David Engle' death. A tragic loss for our community.

I appreciate that Rob's article goes beyond the Pilot's articles and prompts tenants to protect themselves. The contact for free smoke alarms is proactive and helpful.

A further step by the Pilot could be an insert in the paper on how to check and maintain existing alarms. The fire marshall's webpage might have a PFD of the same.

The solution lies with tenants and landlords. Landlords should be checking their properties. Rob's off track with his finger pointing if he thinks the City's code enforcement bureaucracy is going to keep those alarm batteries fresh. -Steve Lewis

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thecondoguy1 6 years, 2 months ago

If I were the Gerbers I would be talking to my lawyer, and I would also question the insurability of this property, you don't often find out you are personably liable untill you have an event, when Insurers find out the property was illegal or not conforming to code they may deny a claim. this should be of considerable concern to an "investor", a precious life was lost over a $4.98 smoke detector. Again this is so sad, I just ache for David and all who loved him...........

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elk2 6 years, 2 months ago

I'd like to add that the responsibility shouldn't fall solely on the Gerber's. Several people owned this property before them, some who had a great deal of knowledge about code.

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thecondoguy1 6 years, 2 months ago

elk2, if I were the attorney representing this family I would go back to the history of this property and hold everybody culpable to one degree or another in the chain as far as the law would allow. If I were a Realtor, buyer and or sellers agent, inspector, surveyor, insurer, having been involved in this property since the uniform bldg. code enactment of 1974, I would be bringing my records to the best attorney I could find. If I were the Gerbers I would be doing the same, trying to lay of some liability on as many persons or enity I could. I would also say as many Hail Marys as I could muster. Do not forget a life was lost there could be criminal liability, you can't hide behind a corporation or llc if this can be proven..............

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Manzanita 6 years, 2 months ago

Has everyone forgotten the idea of personal responsibility. According to his neighbors, Engle was so drunk that afternoon that he could barely walk. He went into his apartment and began cooking before he passed out. To make statements that he would have woken up to a fire alarm is an assumption not a fact as everyone has been stating. Before everyone runs out and gets a lawyer to sue everone else, do some self reflection on what Engle did to get himself in this situation. This is no different than someone hurting themslves on the ski slope and then having their parents sue the ski area. While the death was a tragic waste of life, it is ignorantly simple to place all of the blame and resposibility at the owner's feet.

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