Owner of crowded row house where 2 died in August fire charged with murder

The owner of a crowded Northwest D.C. row house that caught fire in August, killing two people, including a 9-year-old boy, has been charged with murder.

James G. Walker, 61, of D.C., was indicted by a D.C. grand jury on two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of involuntary murder, according to D.C. Superior Court documents.

The Washington Post first reported the charges Wednesday. Walker was arrested in Baltimore, where he also owns a property, The Post reported.

The fire broke out in the basement of the two-story row house in the 700 block of Kennedy Street just after 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 18. Fitsum Kebede, 40, and a 9-year-old boy, Yafet Solomon, were trapped in the blaze and died.

Authorities said a total of eight people — mostly Ethiopian immigrants — were living in the crowded row house, which officials said was an unlicensed apartment that had been improperly partitioned into a dozen small rooms, some no larger than a queen-sized mattress, according to one report.

At least three people were evacuated and transported with injuries from a now-fire ravaged building on Kennedy Street. (Courtesy DC Fire and EMS)

The indictment against Walker says he acted “with a conscious disregard of an extreme risk of death or serious bodily injury to another” and caused the deaths of Kebede and Solomon “by maintaining an unsafe premise and by failing to correct known fire hazards” at the Kennedy Street property.

A separate filing by the office of D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine lists 41 separate violations at the Kennedy Street building.

Among the violations flagged, the attorney general said Walker operated a housing business without the proper license and failed to install smoke alarms.

Several rooms in the building violated D.C. building and fire codes because they weren’t large enough or the ceilings were too low, according to the filing. In addition, the filing says there were blocked exits throughout the building, doors that led outside the house that didn’t open easily from inside and windows that weren’t easily opened.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters in August she was referring the case to federal prosecutors to investigate.

Officials in D.C. have also come under scrutiny for their handling of the deadly fire after the D.C. Office of Unified Communications acknowledged it took more than four minutes to dispatch firefighters to the burning apartment.

The delay came, in part, because the police officer had radioed the emergency to a police dispatcher, not the fire response system.

It was also revealed that several months before the fire, a D.C. police officer had reported dangerous conditions at the building to both the D.C. Fire and EMS and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is responsible for regulating construction in the District.

A DCRA inspector visited the home three times — but couldn’t get inside because no one was home — and left a card before closing the case, according to an independent report requested by the mayor shortly after the fire.

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