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Seller on trial for deaths of those who bought home

It was the first substantial snowfall of the 1988-89 winter, and time to try out the gas-powered de-icer under the steep driveway of their new home.

John and Linda Cifarelli turned on the de-icer and went to bed _ for the last time. The couple and their 23-month-old daughter Nina died in their sleep, victims of carbon monoxide fumes seeping from a faulty gas heater in the adjoining garage.

In an unusual twist, the man who sold them the house is on trial this week, charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter in their deaths. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison on each charge.

Prosecutors contend Stephen Converse Brooks, 37, who has pleaded innocent, should have told the Cifarellis the heater was malfunctioning before they took up residence in August 1988.

Legal experts said it is rare, if not unique, for homicide charges to be filed in connection with the sale of an individual home.

Real estate case law has been expanding in recent years to give buyers more protections. In California, home sellers are being asked to complete disclosure forms on problems with property.

"This is another example of the expanding duties and obligations of the sellers and their agents," said James Sulzer, a Chicago attorney who specializes in real estate law.

"It seems if a person had knowledge of a dangerous situation, and it was a hidden defect, that they ought to be liable at least civilly and possibly criminally."

Cifarelli, 34, a painter, was found dead in bed on Dec. 10, 1988. His wife, a 26-year-old secretary, was found on the floor. Nina was in a crib in another room. Two other people in the house survived _ the couple's 5-month-old daughter Annabelle and a 28-year-old friend staying overnight.

The friend, Andrew Csermak, told police he wasn't feeling well and went downstairs to watch television and later fell asleep. He came across the bodies the next day.

Investigators say the boiler, used to push hot water through underground coils to melt snow on the driveway, was responsible for the carbon monoxide. Autopsies found lethal levels of the highly poisonous gas in the bodies.

Prosecutors maintain Brooks knew about the malfunction because he had taken his girlfriend and daughter to a hospital in November 1987 for what was later diagnosed as carbon monoxide poisoning.

In opening arguments last week in Vermont District Court, prosecutor Edward Sutton maintained Brooks had an obligation to disclose the fault when he sold the house to Mrs. Cifarelli's mother. Brooks knew the heater was "very dangerous" when he sold the house, Sutton charged.

Gas company and plumbing experts testified the appliance vent was blocked and the unit had no safety mechanism to sense the malfunction and shut it down.