Evergreen Court Fire: Rabbis sentenced to probation amid outcry from family, firefighters

“After hearing emotional cries for prison time for the two men who took responsibility for the Evergreen Court Home for Adults fire, Rockland County Court Judge Kevin Russo stuck to his commitment and sentenced Nathaniel and Aaron Sommer to probation. Russo said probation was appropriate, noting the rabbi and his son had no prior criminal history and had a reputation for charitable work and helping others.

Rockland County Court Judge Kevin Russo

Russo noted the response from the families of the two men who died, Spring Valley Fire Department Lt. Jared Lloyd, 35, and assisted living facility resident Oliver Hueston, 79. He also said Lloyd was a “true hero” and Hueston was “an excellent family man.”

Russo said the two Monsey men admitted that they acted recklessly and the court system operates on evidence and doesn’t respond to attempts at vengeance and intimidation, noting multiple protests. Up to 100 people protested the sentence outside the courthouse and packed the courtroom.

“I doubt I will ever see you again in my courtroom,” Russo said of the Sommers.

Video comment: Rockland District Attorney Thomas Walsh issues comments on the case.

Sabrail Davenport, Lloyd’s mother, beseeched Russo to go back on his endorsement of a no-jail or prison sentence reached with prosecutors and defense attorneys for the Sommers. The father and son had pleaded guilty on July 20 to causing the deadly fire on March 23, 2021, at the dilapidated Evergreen Court Home for Adults. The fire ignited the massive Lafayette Street building hours after they cleansed the facility’s kitchen and ovens for Passover.

Nathaniel Sommer used a 20-pound propane-injected industrial blowtorch and Aaron Sommer dragged buckets of burning coal into the kitchen. The heat and flames simmered and climbed through the greasy ovens and into the walls. After an emotional time in the courtroom, Davenport said that she was not surprised at the sentencing.

Davenport told Russo about how her son’s death affects her family, especially his two young sons, Darius and Logan, both under 10. She extolled her son’s community spirit and love of being a Spring Valley volunteer firefighter. Lloyd served 16 years and rose to the rank of lieutenant with the Columbian Fire Engine Co. No. 1.

She urged the judge to hold the Sommers accountable and sentence them to a minimum of one to three years behind bars “so that my family can walk away from this horrific tragedy feeling like justice was served. No one is above the law regardless of their position.”

Davenport said she sees Lloyd’s death as a life sentence for her and her family, emphasizing, “My grandsons will grow up without their dad and what will hurt them more is knowing that justice was not served.”

“We know this will not bring Jared back but out of respect for my son Jared and his fellow firefighting brothers in Rockland County, no jail time is not an option,” Davenport said. “I am praying that you all consider the pain that this horrendous act has caused me and my family. I’m praying also that you search your conscience because you will have to live with your decision for the rest of your life.”

As she sat back down in the audience, she wept.

Lloyd’s father, Calvin Lloyd, spoke about the pain of never being able to speak to his son again and his grandsons growing up without their father.

‘You want to see him again:’ 1 year after Evergreen Court fire, Lloyd’s loss, questions linger

At the sentencing, Nathaniel Sommers said, “I am sorry. I feel terrible for what I did. I tried my whole life to help people; I feel terrible I hurt so many people. I feel terrible I dragged my son into this.”

Aaron Sommer declined to make a statement.

The Sommers’ attorney, Jacob Laufer, called Nathaniel Sommer a respected rabbi who has been an EMT for 43 years. Laufer said Sommer has been a “spiritual and religious leader.”

“He’s saved lives,” Laufer told Russo, adding that the rabbis and son have been involved in charitable work, including Aaron Sommer working with children in the Ukraine.

Laufer said the Sommers grieve and pray for the two who died and their families. He said supporters submitted around 80 to 90 letters on their behalf.

One letter sent independently to Russo was signed by 27 elected officials and rabbis from the Orthodox Jewish community. They expressed their concerns about an “antisemitic campaign that targets two defendants in your court, specifically Nathaniel Sommer and Aaron Sommer.”

“We all grieve the tragic loss of firefighter Jared Lloyd and assisted living resident Oliver Hueston. Firefighters especially represent the heart and soul of our public service, a sentiment we universally share. Nevertheless, this tragedy should not become a vehicle for inciting antisemitic sentiment, nor should it compromise the principles of justice.”

Rockland County Executive Ed Day, a retired NYPD police commander, repeated his June statement saying he supported “the wishes of the Lloyd and Hueston families, both of whom feel they are not receiving justice.   “There is unanimity in their position that some jail time is warranted as victims are serving a death sentence and the families are serving a life sentence,” Day said. “With that, they tell me that closure and justice will not be achieved without a jail sentence for the guilty parties, and I fully and unequivocally support the family’s position.” 

Legislator Itamar Yeger, D-Ramapo, a former assistant with the District Attorney’s Office, said Russo made the right decision on sentencing. Yeger’s statement.

“Based on my experience and the research I conducted, it is clear that the court’s decision to sentence the Sommers to the maximum periods of probation permissible under law was just and appropriate,” Yeger wrote in a statement. “While individuals without comparable legal or prosecutorial expertise are certainly entitled to their own viewpoints, it is irresponsible to mount unwarranted and inaccurate attacks on our County’s judicial system.”

However, the Rockland’s NAACP leaders have ripped apart what they called a lenient no-jail plea deal. In their  letter to Russo and Walsh, the three leaders contend the no-jail deal “does not adequately address the crimes as indicated by the indictment.”

Columbian Fire Co. chaplain John Kapral read Eric Cich’s victim impact statement in court. Cich, one of Lloyd’s best friends, described what he recalled happening to him as he and more than a hundred other firefighters from various county departments responded to the fire. Cich suffered life-threatening injuries and spent time hospitalized. Lloyd saved his life by screaming the distress call “mayday” multiple times into his communicator, leading firefighters to search for an injured colleague. They found Cich, thinking he made the Mayday call. They later found Lloyd’s burned and battered body.

Firefighter Eric Cich: His victim’s impact statement is read during sentencing

Cich and Jared Lloyd entered the Evergreen Court Home for Adults together. Cich and Lloyd got separated in the chaos of the fire and smoke. And, at some point, a section of the Lafayette Avenue building collapsed with a firefighter shout of “Collapse! Collapse!”

“One minute I was with him the next I wasn’t,” Cich has said. “Somehow we got separated in a matter of feet. I still don’t know what happened to this day. We were working to remove the final resident from the building. It’s surreal to think.” That final resident needing to be evacuated was Hueston.

In his statement to the court, Cich, a paid firefighter in South Carolina with other former Spring Valley volunteers, answered the question, “How has this offense affected my life?”

His answer: “Kind of a silly question, isn’t it? I’ve been checked out by plenty of doctors and they all say my lungs are fine but it doesn’t feel that way. I was told there would be no permanent damage. My lungs aren’t fully functional and my heart is broken in half as I have said before the pain in my lungs pales in comparison to the pain in my heart. I have to wake up every day knowing that even though we were doing everything right, everything we could do to be the good guys, only one of us got to go home, only one of us gets to hug and kiss our loved ones while the other has to watch out for the rest of us from above. I’m broken but I’m doing the job I love so much and I owe it to him to do the best damn job I can for both of us. Since he doesn’t get the chance to be down in S.C. with us.” Russo and Walsh have come under heavy criticism for the no-jail plea agreement for the Sommers. Firefighters and other residents have called for both to resign, as a movement is afoot to run a write-in campaign against Walsh, who has again garnered the ballot lines of the Democrats, Republicans, and Conservative parties in the Nov. 7 election.”

Read the complete Journal News coverage here.