The owner of the Cinema Follies theater, where a fire killed nine men in 1977, was fined $650 in D.C. Superior Court yesterday after he was found guilty of violating the city's building code.
The owner, William Oates, was found guilty of 4 of 15 code violations against him. He testified before Judge Robert A. Shuker that he "did everything I could" to comply with the building code at his theater, a private club for homosexuals at 37 L St. SE.
Shuker agreed that Oates "did everything possible" to try to comply with the laws, but, the judge said, Oates' efforts were sometimes hampered by poorly kept city records and problems with interpreting the city building code.
"I do find a troublesome conflict in the evidence," Shuker said as he was about to sentence Oates for the violations. "There were actions of (the city's building code office) that could have led the defendant to believe he was in compliance" with the law. The evidence in the case, however, clearly proved Oates was guilty of the four violations, Shuker said.
Oates was found guilty of maintaining a wooden stairway to the second floor of the theater. He also was charged with violating the building code by having more steps in that stairway than the 16 allowed.
In addition, Oates was found guilty of maintaining a wooden stage on the second floor and of constructing a partition on the first floor without a permit.
Shuker fined Oates the maximum of $300 for each of the two code violations related to the staircase. Oates was fined $25 for each of the two additional violations. Shuker said Oates could receive up to 22 days in jail if the fines are not paid today.
Nine men died as a result of the fire at the theater on Oct. 24, 1977, which investigators said began when a spark from a rug shampooer ignited flammable cleaning fluid at the foot of the wooden staircase. The fire shot up the staircase and quickly engulfed drapes and walls in flames, trapping the men in a second-floor movie theater.
The wooden staircase, which was charred but not completely burned in the fire, was the focus of much of the testimony in the Oates trial.
City fire officials maintained that the wooden staircase violated the city's building code. But Oates testified that city inspectors frequently had visited the building -- which he converted from a auto repair shop into a private club -- but never told him the stairs were in violation of the code.
"Everything in the building was A-1 fireproof," Oates testified. "We even spent $5 extra per yard to make sure the carpeting was fireproof." Oates said the wooden stairs were covered with the fireproof carpeting, as were the floors throughout the theater. The theater did not reopen after the fire.
The criminal charges against Oates were misdemeanors.
Oates also is a defendant in five civil suits that contend that he and others were negligent in that the L Street building was in violation of various building and electrical codes.The lawsuits, filed by wives and relatives of some of the fire victims, seek millions of dollars in damages from Oates and the other defendants, including city inspectors.
At a seperate hearing before Shuker yesterday, Oates pleaded guilty to two violations of the city building code at the "Follies," a club Oates now operates at 24 O St. SE, and was sentenced to pay a $25 fine on each count. Shuker ordered, however, that the sentence run concurrently with the penalties imposed in the Cinema Follies case.