Father and son rabbis faulted for an assisted living fire in 2021 in New York that killed a resident and a firefighter were able to avoid prison time following a plea deal.
Rabbi Nathaniel Sommer and his son Aaron were spared a prison term and only had to pay $600 in court costs following a March 2021 fire at Evergreen Court Home for Adults in Spring Valley, NY. The fire killed Spring Valley Firefighter Jared Lloyd, who became trapped after rescuing several residents, and 79-year-old Oliver Hueston.
Wednesday was the formal sentencing.
The plea deal was reached in June with the Rockland District Attorney’s Office and approved by Rockland County Court Judge Kevin Russo. It gave Nathaniel Sommer, who pleaded guilty to two felony counts of second-degree manslaughter, five years of probation, and Aaron Sommer three years of probation after they pleaded guilty to misdemeanor second-degree reckless endangerment. The plea deal was reached because the two did not have a criminal record and there was a lack of legal precedent for death connected to a religious ritual.
The Sommers originally were indicted in late 2021 on multiple felony charges, including second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, fourth-degree arson, second-degree reckless endangerment and three assaults.
The deal sparked outrage in Rockland County, with firefighters staging a protest outside the courthouse during the formal sentencing on Wednesday, according to media reports. There also were calls for District Attorney Thomas Walsh to resign.
Nathaniel Sommer admitted to using a propane blowtorch to cleanse the Evergreen Court ovens and kitchen as part of a pre-Passover practice. The action was alleged to have caused the fire and partial roof collapse that destroyed the former 200-bed complex.
In September, Lloyd’s mother, Sabrail Davenport, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Sommers, as well as Spring Valley Building Department head Wayne Ballard and Chief Inspector Raymond Canario, former Evergreen Executive Director Denise Kerr and employee Emmanuel Lema. Davenport also sued Evergreen Court’s owners, the Schonberger family.
Ballard, Canario, Kerr and Lema all had been charged for playing roles in the fire. Cases against Ballard and Canario were thrown out earlier this year by a judge.
After the fire, the New York Health Department tried to revoke the facility’s operating certificate, which prompted the Schonberger family to sue the state.
According to a settlement reached in August, the owners and the state dropped legal actions against each other and the department merely suspended the operating certificate, according to the Rockland/Westchester Journal News.
The Schonbergers agreed to submit plans for a new 200-bed adult home with an assisted living program. Once reopened, Evergreen Court will retain a consultant to oversee compliance in facility operations for two years.