The wooden farmhouse in rural northern Montgomery where six people died in a predawn blaze Saturday had been condemned on Christmas Eve because the owner, a member of a county zoning appeals board, had failed to make repairs he had agreed to last summer, housing officials said yesterday.
Harry M. Leet, the owner of the property at 22901 Slidell Rd. in Boyds, had been cited for various deficiencies on the property, including the fact that it had no heating system. He was under orders from the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Development to remove the tenants by Jan. 3, and failed to remove the tenants or make the repairs, according to housing code enforcement files.
Montgomery County Fire Marshall John Vest said the housing files on Leet's property have been subpoenaed as part of an investigation into what he termed the worst fire in the county in 33 years. He would not elaborate on the investigation.
In an interview yesterday, an angry Leet blamed the fire on "drunken" behavior and deception by the tenants. Among the lies, he said, were telling him that only four persons lived in the house when in fact 11 lived there, including two children who died in the fire.
"There is absolutely no connection . . . between the code violations and the fire," Leet said. " The house burned because it was wood and the people had overheated the wood stove . . . . They didn't know what they were doing."
The people living in the house were a collection of friends and family in the construction and roofing business who pooled resources to rent the $275-a-month house. Shannon Green, who accompanied one survivor, her cousin Margaret Carter, to the hospital Saturday, denied the group was drunk prior to the fire.
"They were not drunk," she said. "Everyone was in bed when the fire broke out. I don't know how Mr. Leet knows whether they were drunk 'cause he wasn't even there."
Leet also said housing officials have been more strict with him than with other landlords because of his appointment by the County Council four years ago to the Board of Appeals. The board approves or rejects exceptions to the county zoning laws, including those governing accessory apartments and decks.
Housing officials "were more vigilant because I held a peanut public position -- very low pay and rather insignificant," Leet said, referring to his $9,800-a-year post.
Housing code enforcement files reveal that Leet's Slidell property has been riddled with housing code violations -- including lack of a heating system and running water, a leaky roof and crumbling walls -- since 1981.
Officials failed to fine Leet until two days after the house burned. On Monday, they fined him $250 for illegal occupancy, based on a Dec. 7 inspection. Because the house by then had burned to the ground, officials said they issued only one citation, instead of a series they had planned in an attempt to pressure Leet into making repairs, according to Richard J. Ferrara, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development.
"We considered him an honorable person because of his membership on the board. He is a longtime Montgomery property owner. I felt he would live up to the agreement," Ferrara said, referring to an agreement Leet signed on Aug. 15, in which he agreed to make repairs to the property.
Ferrara also said that none of the violations for which Leet was cited, in his opinion, were directly fire related.
The code enforcement files indicate there have been problems with the property since September 1981, when a housing inspector found 10 violations, including inadequate heating, roof leaks, broken windows and deteriorated siding. Leet was ordered to correct the violations within 60 days, according to the files.
When the violations remained uncorrected a year later, housing officials asked the county attorney to initiate legal action. Instead, the officials, a county attorney and Leet met on Jan. 28, 1983, and the deadline for repairs was extended until May 1, 1983, according to the files.
The next entry in the files, last Feb. 15, details many of the same violations cited two years earlier. Last July 15, the house was condemned because of "existing conditions which . . . should be corrected to insure the health and safety of any present or future occupants," according to the files. Leet was told he would have to correct the conditions before again renting out the house, which he had bought in 1962 and rented for much of that time to one family.
But on Aug. 15 Leet signed an agreement with housing authorities promising that the repairs would be made by Dec. 1 by a tenent who was a carpenter, and housing officials lifted the condemnation, according to the files. On Dec. 7 a housing inspector found that most of the violations, including inadequate heating, remained uncorrected, the files show.
On Dec. 24, the house again was condemned and Leet was told to remove the tenants by Jan. 3. A week later, the fire killed six of the 11 residents, including two children, ages two and 12.
In a letter that Leet wrote to the housing department on Jan. 6, five days before the fire, the landlord "said we were making more of this than necessary," Ferrara said. "He said he had spent $1,000 on repairs and more was yet to be spent. He felt we were harassing him. I feel we gave him every opportunity to make the repairs."
Leet said yesterday: "It is a tragedy -- its borne very heavily on me and there isn't anything I've done in any way that contributed to this except rent the house to four people. "If I'd known there were 11 people living there I'd have been in court the next day. I just ran into a lot of people that didn't know how to conduct themselves."