The charred home on East Second Street as it looked on Nov. 18. File photo: Peter Blasl

Riverhead Town served three criminal summonses on the owner of the four-family house on East Second Street just three weeks before the late-night blaze on Nov. 16 destroyed the home and killed a family of five living in the third-floor apartment.

The owner, Carmela Cannella, who lived in the first floor apartment of the century-old home at 46 East Second Street, did not have town rental permits for the three apartments occupied by tenants there, according to Riverhead Town Code Enforcement Division records.

Previous rental permits issued to Cannella for the three apartments, last issued in 2018, had expired on March 7, 2020.

Cannella has owned the home for many years, her attorney Edward Burke Jr. said in an interview today.

“My client has always had the required rental permits and has been a very diligent, attentive landlord,” Burke said.

Town code requires inspections for safety, building and fire code compliance before permits can be issued. Permits are good for a two-year period.

Victims died of smoke inhalation; cause of fire still undetermined

The cause of the fire is still undetermined and the investigation remains ongoing, according to the Suffolk County Police Department, which is leading the investigation. Suffolk County Police Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, commanding officer of the Suffolk Police Department Homicide Squad, said the day after the fire the preliminary investigation determined that the cause of the fire is not criminal in nature.

The county medical examiner has determined that the fire victims died of smoke inhalation, a Suffolk Police spokesperson said today.

Burke said Cannella has fully cooperated with the authorities in their investigation.

“This is a horrible tragedy,” Burke said. “No one feels worse than my client. She cares for her tenants and always had a very good relationship with them,” he said.

Carlos Peñate Rivera, with his mother Zonia and his sister Andrea on Oct. 8, when Andrea arrived in the U.S. All three were killed in a fast-moving fire Nov. 16, along with Rivera’s cousins, Douglas Edgardo Rivera Aguirre and Carlos Alberto Ramos Aguirre. Courtesy photo: Laura Rivera

Code Enforcement Division records obtained by RiverheadLOCAL through a Freedom of Information Law request, show that rental permit renewal notices for each of the three apartments were issued on Feb. 21, 2020.

Cannella never responded to the renewal notices, according to notes made by code enforcement investigators in the file.

Riverhead Code Enforcement Division inspectors visited the home to verify the rentals on Aug. 16, 2020 but there was no answer when the inspector knocked on the front door, according to an activity summary provided by the town attorney’s office. A phone call went unanswered on June 26, 2021, an inspector wrote. An inspector visited the home again on Sept. 17, 2021, and again there was no answer.

An inspector visited the home on Oct. 7 and reported in his notes that he spoke with a woman outside the home who identified herself as Sonia Rivera and said she rented the third-floor apartment.

“She’s been living there for 5 years,” the officer wrote. “Will issue summons.”

Rivera, 41, her 16-year-old daughter, 24-year-old son and her two nephews, ages 24 and 22, who lived in the third-floor apartment, would perish in the Nov. 16 blaze.

On Oct. 13, the inspector recorded “a courtesy phone call to owner,” in the computer system the code enforcement unit uses to track its enforcement activities.

“Advised her about the rental verification. Same advise that she did not received any rental renewal letter. Adviser her that it was sent out and that rental permit has been expired over two years. She advised that right now she has no time because she is going to have a procedure in November. Summons will be issue,” inspector Hernan Ruales wrote.

Burke said between his client’s health issues, surgeries and the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered government offices for part of the year in 2020, Cannella was not able to renew the permits in a timely manner.

On Oct. 13, Ruales issued the three summonses, returnable in Riverhead Justice Court on Dec. 7, according to town records.

An affidavit of service sworn to by Ruales on Nov. 3 states that he tried to serve the summonses on Cannella three times: on Oct. 25, 26 and 27 without success. He affixed copies of the summonses to her front door and mailed them to her at the house on Oct. 27.

Three weeks later, fire tore through the home, killing Rivera and her family, and leaving Cannella and the tenants in the two second-floor apartments homeless.

Rothwell: Town code changes coming

Councilman Ken Rothwell, a member of the town board’s code revision committee, said the committee is working on code revision proposals that would require annual inspections of rental dwellings, rather than biennial inspections as is currently mandated, as well as a second means of egress for third-floor apartments, such as a fire escape, and interactive smoke and carbon monoxide detectors that would set off other detectors in the building remotely.

“Can someone on the third floor hear a smoke detector going off in a first-floor apartment?” Rothwell asked. “They need to be integrated,” he said.

“I don’t know that it would have made a difference in this case,” said Rothwell, who is a volunteer firefighter. “But I sit and I think. It shook all of us to the core the see this tragic event. We go into too many fires where there are smoke detectors disabled or have dead batteries. A rental home should not go more than a year without an inspection,” he said. “Two years is too long.”

Rothwell acknowledged that new requirements like those being discussed by the code revision committee will require the town to hire more code enforcement staff. But it’s needed, he said. “I’m willing to take a stand.”

Cannella is due back in Riverhead Justice Court early next month.

A conviction under the current rental permit code is punishable by a fine of $250-$1,000, by imprisonment of up to 15 days, or both. Each week’s continued violation is a separate offense, according to the code.

Correction: This article incorrectly referred to SCPD Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer as chief of the homicide squad. He is its commanding officer. An error in the sequence of phone calls and inspection attempts has also been corrected post-publication.

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