Wife of jailed excavator calls him scapegoat in collapse

Sean Benschop, with a jacket over his head, walking with officers after turning himself in June 8.
Sean Benschop, with a jacket over his head, walking with officers after turning himself in June 8. (JOSEPH KACZMAREK / AP)
Posted: July 27, 2013

To Mayor Nutter, Sean Benschop was nothing but a villain.

"Justice will only be served if Sean Benschop receives a sentence that buries him in a jailhouse forever," the mayor declared upon Benschop's arrest on involuntary-manslaughter charges in the fatal Market Street building collapse.

But to Benschop's wife, her husband is a scapegoat, lambasted by a mayor who had not bothered to learn all the facts.

By her account, Benschop was merely a "day laborer," working without a contract, in the demolition disaster that killed six people and injured 14, including Benschop.

In a preview of Benschop's possible defense, his wife and his lawyer say he had no authority to address safety issues.

"Sean was not in charge of safety at the site," said Daine Grey, Benschop's lawyer in the manslaughter case. "The safety of the site was not the responsibility or in the control of my client."

Even so, his wife said, Benschop had recommended to the job's contractor that he rent a high-lift device to lift a worker above the building, presumably as the safest way to demolish the structure.

Tynisha Gregory-Benschop, a principal in her husband's business, said she had contacted three firms about renting such a lift and conveyed their bids to her husband.

In the end, no lift was used - a decision that remains a central mystery of the collapse.

Benschop, 43, is held on $1.5 million bail awaiting his criminal trial. A law enforcement source has said Benschop, while using an excavator, improperly undermined a four-story building, causing a wall to fall onto the adjacent Salvation Army thrift store.

A toxicology report found marijuana in his blood at a level rendering him unfit for "safety-sensitive" work, authorities said. Grey has said marijuana will remain in the system for a month or longer after it was smoked.

The collapse remains under law enforcement investigation. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has begun a grand jury probe.

In an interview, Gregory-Benschop said she could not explain why a lift ultimately was not used for the demolition. Grey declined to provide any details about the lift issue.

There is no doubt that STB, the owner of the building to be demolished, considered using such a device. As The Inquirer reported this month, STB's lawyers sent two letters in May to the Salvation Army describing plans to rent a lift to raise demolition workers over the thrift shop.

'Safeguard' public

In one letter, an STB attorney wrote, "The procedure we intend to follow" called for using a lift that would elevate "a bucket/basket area for holding a worker" above the Salvation Army roof.

This would "safeguard the interests of the public," the lawyer wrote.

STB has declined to comment, citing pending lawsuits over the collapse.

A lawyer for Griffin Campbell, the contractor who hired Benschop, has said Campbell bears no blame for the collapse. He has said the plan had been to demolish the wall brick by brick, not with heavy equipment.

Construction-equipment firms say renting a lift of the appropriate size for the job might have cost about $1,500 a week.

Gregory-Benschop said her husband had no authority - or money - to rent a lift for the project.

"It wasn't Sean's job," she said, referring to the overall demolition project. "Would you actually take it upon yourself to go and do something that started out as a suggestion and you're not the boss, you don't own anything there?"

'Judge and jury'

Gregory-Benschop spoke bitterly about the mayor and his remarks about her husband.

"That's something that I have to say I was firmly disgusted by," she said. "I believe you have a right to a fair trial. He's judge and jury."

To raise money to pay Benschop's lawyer, the family has started a website that requests donations to a legal-defense fund.

She said the couple's finances were strained in part because the city owed their business money for past work.

Records show that the city owes Benschop $32,000 for three demolition jobs he completed without incident this year.

The payments have been held up because Benschop owes $14,000 in taxes, officials said Thursday. City records show that Benschop has been on a payment plan to make good on back taxes.

Gregory-Benschop, 35, is Benschop's common-law wife and has been his partner for 20 years.

She said her husband moved to the United States at age 19 from Guyana. She said he had a troubled 20s but turned his life around.

In a 2011 application for city demolition work, Benschop disclosed a 1994 arrest in New Jersey for attempted marijuana sales. He skipped out on bail, but was picked up a decade later in Philadelphia and extradited to New Jersey. He served 15 months in prison.

"Since that time I have completed my parole without incident and have been trying to provide for myself and my family, through a long-term skill of mine consisting of but not limited to the demolishment of abatements here in the city, etc.," he wrote.

The form lists about two dozen jobs handled by his firm, including one for the music producer and developer Kenny Gamble.

Gregory-Benschop said her husband had amassed a successful record demolishing buildings in Philadelphia.

After the June 5 disaster, she said, he telephoned her that he was "devastated."

She added:

"Every night I'm not just in prayer for Sean, but I'm in prayer for the people who lost their lives and who were hurt. That's something that will be with us for the rest of our lives."

Contact Dylan Purcell at 215-854-4915, dpurcell@phillynews.com, or follow @dylancpurcell on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Paul Nussbaum contributed to this article.

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