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Former Alhambra fire department employees sue city

Most of the 900 block of Valley Boulevard still lies deserted, damaged from a 2007 blaze that not only killed a man when it burned down the strip mall, but also may have cost two former city employees their jobs.

According to court documents, former fire department employees Ken Toh and Mike Hatzbanian were relieved of their duties after they allegedly interfered with the fire investigation. They are separately suing the city of Alhambra for wrongful termination, both claiming it ignored significant evidence that the fire was not electrical, as officials determined, but actually arson.

Toh, a fire engineer and protection specialist, was terminated in 2008 after being criminally charged with interfering with the investigation. He was acquitted of all charges in 2009.Hatzbanian, a former code enforcement officer, was let go for allegedly meeting with businessman Peter Fong, the owner of the damaged strip mall. According to court documents, city officials also claim that Toh and Fong were good friends. Arson means less liability for Fong, who according to the Pasadena Star-News is being sued by other tenants who claim that the electrical fire was his fault.

The pair procured a videotape they claim proves the fire was not electrical but planned by a tenant in the building. Charlie Chien Kuo Lee, the 61-year-old victim of the fire, worked in a frame shop in the strip mall. According to court documents, the videotape shows Lee moving products out of his store the night before the fire. Lee also allegedly called an employee and told him to come into work later than normal. Toh questioned Lee’s body as well, claiming that there was no attempt to escape the fire and suggesting that Lee was the one who lit the match.

Their lawyer claims Toh and Hatzbanian were not interfering, but rather let go for refusing to take part in an arson cover-up. "Instead of investigating, they tell him to shut up," James Urbanic, the men’s lawyer, told the Star-News.

The city alleges that the pair acted outside of their official responsibilities by speaking with witnesses and tampering with evidence. "It's in Mr. Fong's interest for someone to claim that it wasn't his fault," City Attorney Richard Terzian told the Star-News. "The real problem with the video is they got somebody to digitize the recording, we don't have any idea if it was corrupted." 

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