Investigators: Fire marshal and former investigator face lawsuit related to deadly motel fire

The Investigators: State Fire Marshal lawsuit
Nunzio Marchiofava
Nunzio Marchiofava
Butch Browning (Source: WAFB)
Butch Browning (Source: WAFB)

GRAND ISLE, LA (WAFB) - The Louisiana state fire marshal could find himself answering tough questions in court, as he and one of his former investigators are defendants in a lawsuit.

The inspector is accused of never conducting an inspection on a rundown motel, which went up in flames and left two people dead months later. The Rusty Pelican motel in Grand Isle caught fire on Sept. 26, 2012. Loved ones of the two people who perished inside filed suit naming the motel's owner, insurance company, the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal and a now former fire marshal investigator.

"The state is potentially liable for the wrongful death of two individuals," said Raphael Goyeneche, director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a south Louisiana criminal watchdog organization.

According to Goyeneche, the state is named in the suit because some officials were aware of dangerous conditions at the motel. In fact, Milton Bourgeois, who owns property next to the motel and spoke with the media in 2013 about the incident, sent the state fire marshal's office a letter in March 2012, just six months before the deadly fire, alerting officials of what lurked next door to him in Grand Isle and stressing the urgency of the problem.

"Please allow this to serve as an official complaint relative to an extreme severe fire hazard that now exists at an extremely rundown motel knows as the Rusty Pelican," Bourgeous wrote. "Sir, I cannot overly stress the deplorable condition of this very 'rundown' former motel."

According to records, Nunzio Marchiofava, a fire marshal investigator, was assigned to conduct an inspection. Documents show Marchiofavo went to the motel on April 2, 2012, but said the owner was not there, so he scheduled a follow-up visit in May. Marchiofava's timesheet for the May 25 indicated he took a trip to the Rusty Pelican, but the odometer on his vehicle for that day did not match the travel distance. State investigators point out that a one-way trip between his office in downtown New Orleans and Grand Isle is more than 100 miles, so a roundtrip would be more than 200 miles. However, Marchiofava's odometer for that day was marked at 180 miles.

After the state Inspector General's investigation into the matter, Marchiofava resigned from the state fire marshal's office and turned himself in to authorities last year. In an arrest warrant, an IG investigator noted, "Nunzio Marchiafava admitted the only time he actually went to investigate the Rusty Pelican complaint was on April 2, 2012."

Despite admitting to investigators in 2013 that he did not make that follow-up visit to Grand Isle, Marchiofava stated Tuesday that he did go back out there in May. However, cell phones records show he was in New Orleans at his office inside the Benson Towers and not in Grand Isle.

The suit filed by the families of the deceased has been settled between them, the motel owner and the insurance company with $43,000 being paid to each of the children.

"So, what you're dealing with here is the hotel owner and the hotel's insurance company said that they are negligent and liable. Therefore, they settled," Goyeneche explained.

The suit is still ongoing between the families, Marchiofava and the state fire marshal's office. Goyeneche said State Fire Marshal Butch Browning is named because Marchiofava worked under him.

"Had they done their job properly, they would have identified the hazards that existed and they had the authority to shut down that hotel. Since they didn't conduct the inspection, they are partially responsible for the fire that ensued there," Goyeneche added.

The Investigators called Browning, but he stated he could not comment because this was ongoing litigation. However, he did say the Office of the Louisiana Attorney General is now defending the state in this matter.

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