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Landlord tried to evict tenants before 10 kids died in fire, lawyer says

A 10th child perished Tuesday from injuries he suffered in a tragic fire in Little Village as state officials confirmed they’re investigating child neglect allegations and a lawyer for the building owner revealed he tried to evict the woman who rented the unit where the kids died.

Fourteen-year-old Adrian Hernandez died about noon Tuesday at Stroger Hospital, said his aunt, Sheila Reyes. The children killed in the early Sunday fire ranged in age from 3 months to 16 years old. The child death toll matched the highest in a Chicago fire since the infamous Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School fire in 1958, which claimed 92 kids.

Chicago Fire Department investigators were unable to find smoke detectors in the second floor of the coach house that caught fire, officials said. The same unit came under the scrutiny of city inspectors in 2015 for not having smoke detectors, but the problem was fixed, records show.

On July 20, building owner Merced Gutierrez had filed a lawsuit to evict Yolanda Ayala, who lost six of her seven children in the blaze Sunday.

She was refusing to pay rent, according to Gutierrez’s lawyer, Raul Serrato. The case was pending.

“He’s devastated,” Serrato said of his client. “He feels terrible about this.”

Ayala’s second-floor coach-house unit is behind a three-story greystone apartment building at 2224 S. Sacramento Ave.

In October 2016, Gutierrez had filed a lawsuit to evict Ayala’s mother, Ramoncita Reyes, from a first-story unit in the same building, records show. That first-floor unit was the scene of a different fire that took place shortly after Reyes was kicked out, Serrato said. The unit has remained vacant since then. Fire officials could not immediately confirm that fire, and Reyes could not be reached for comment.

Building Department records show Ayala’s second-floor unit where the fire occurred Sunday was found by city inspectors not to have smoke detectors on Oct. 1, 2015, but the unit was brought into compliance nearly eight months later, in May 2016.

A memorial was placed outside the home where a fire early Sunday took the lives of 10 children. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times
A memorial was placed outside the home where a fire early Sunday took the lives of 10 children. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

Although fire officials said they found no smoke detectors in the unit after Sunday’s blaze, Serrato said his client insists that he had installed them.

Judging from where the children were found Sunday, it appears none had been been alerted to the blaze, said fire department spokesman Larry Langford. He said the death count would have been “lower, if not non-existent” if smoke detectors had been in the apartment.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. Electrical issues have been ruled out, but investigators are looking into “smoking materials” and bottle rockets found on a rear porch where the fire started, officials said.

Police said they were interviewing witnesses and neighbors on Tuesday.

DCFS launches probe

Also Tuesday, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services confirmed it has launched a new investigation following allegations of neglect involving the children who died. In an emailed statement, DCFS said it has had prior contact with three of the families involved in the fire, though no investigations had been pending at the time of the fire.

Nine of the 10 children were related. There were two groups of siblings, who were cousins, and another child who was a close family friend. Some of the children were there for a sleepover, relatives said.

The building was last inspected by the city on June 8 in response to a tenant complaint, according to Buildings Department spokesman Gregg Cunningham. Violations were found and the owner is due in court on Sept. 24, Cunningham said.

“The building was cited for two electrical violations, one for grounding in the front of the building and one for an illegal electrical cord going from the front building to the coach house,” Cunningham said, referring to the rear unit.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who represents Little Village, said the building was a source of problems in the neighborhood. There have been numerous complaints about noise and “possible illegal activity” associated with the building, he said.

When the owner, Gutierrez, returned to the building Tuesday to sign paperwork for repairs to his greystone, he was confronted by angry residents. He remained silent and declined to comment to the Sun-Times.

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