Murder charges in fatal building collapse

District Attorney Seth Williams said the grand jury could issue a further report on its findings and recommend changes in how the city issues demolition permits.
District Attorney Seth Williams said the grand jury could issue a further report on its findings and recommend changes in how the city issues demolition permits. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 27, 2013

District Attorney Seth Williams announced murder charges Monday against the demolition contractor in June's disastrous Center City building collapse, saying Griffin Campbell ignored danger warnings and cut corners "to maximize his profit."

Campbell, 49, was charged with six counts of third-degree murder - one for each person killed June 5 when an unsupported wall of a four-story building at 2136 Market St. toppled onto the adjacent Salvation Army thrift store and flattened it. Fourteen people were injured.

Williams said Campbell was "motivated by greed" - trying to maximize the salvage value of building materials - and chose not to use a safe, widely accepted, but more time-consuming and labor-intensive way of razing the building.

One measure of that alleged greed: the price of a wooden joist.

According to the grand jury, Campbell was able to remove hundreds of internal 12- to 16-foot wooden joists intact from the building along with hardwood flooring, enabling him to get "a more rapid cash return on these salable items." A witness from a salvage business testified of buying joists from Campbell for $6 each, the presentment said - and text messages from Campbell's cellphone showed he had also sold the joists for $8 each.

Campbell's contract with the building owners, the grand jury said, called for him to be paid $112,000 for the demolition work, "plus any salvage value of the buildings."

Williams said that an investigating grand jury was still looking into the collapse and that more people could be charged. He would not elaborate.

"This arrest is just one step along the road to justice," he told reporters at a news conference. "There is more work to be done."

He said the grand jury might also issue a further report detailing its findings and recommending changes in how the city issues demolition permits.

That news encouraged City Treasurer Nancy Winkler and her husband, Jay Bryan, whose daughter Anne, a 24-year-old artist, was one of the six killed.

"I think there are more responsible parties that need to be brought to justice and I hope they are," said Bryan, an engineer. "We think, frankly, that the responsibility goes to the owner to be shared with the contractor."

Property owner Richard Basciano of STB Investments Corp. was razing a series of buildings in that block - a seedy strip that once included a peep show and porn theater - for a proposed mix development of apartments and retail stores. According to the grand jury presentment, Basciano had owned the properties since 1994.

Thomas A. Sprague, Basciano's lawyer, could not be reached for comment. Sprague has declined comment on lawsuits filed on behalf of those killed or injured in the collapse, saying he would respond appropriately in court filings.

In addition to the murder charges, Campbell faces six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 of reckless endangerment, and one each of causing a catastrophe, risking a catastrophe, and criminal conspiracy.

Third-degree murder involves deaths caused by "willful recklessness" or negligence rather than an intent to kill. Under Pennsylvania law, conviction on more than one count of third-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Campbell lawyer William Hobson told KYW Newsradio that the charges are unfounded and that prosecutors had "done everything in their power to strip my client of his rights."

The investigating grand jury also recommended an additional charge of criminal conspiracy against Sean Benschop, 42, operator of the 36,000-pound excavator whose vibrations allegedly caused the unsupported wall to fall.

Benschop, also known in court records as Kary Roberts, was arrested several days later after he tested positive for marijuana. He is being held on $1.55 million bail pending a preliminary hearing Dec. 10 on charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and risking a catastrophe.

Williams said prosecutors would ask that Campbell be held without bail pending trial because of the possible life prison term. Campbell surrendered to Central Detectives Monday afternoon. Williams said he hoped to have Campbell and Benschop tried together.

Campbell's defense lawyer, Kenneth Edelin Jr., could not be reached for comment.

The 15-page grand jury presentment also details warnings that Plato Marinakos, the architect Basciano hired for the demolition project, said he made to Campbell before the collapse.

The presentment said Marinakos testified after being granted immunity from prosecution.

On June 4, according to the presentment, he visited the demolition site and was alarmed to see two stories of unsupported masonry wall looming over the Salvation Army building next door.

The presentment says Marinakos confronted Campbell, and quotes the architect's testimony: "I was upset because, you know, I was like, 'Griffin, you can't leave this wall here. This is just crazy.' "

Marinakos testified that he made Campbell promise to call him first thing the next morning to tell him the western wall had been taken down to the roof line of the Salvation Army building.

The next morning, the presentment says, Campbell called Marinakos and said the wall had been reduced to near the roof line.

In fact, at least one story of it was still above the Salvation Army store.

The grand jury reported that numerous witnesses described how Campbell watched that morning while Benschop operated the excavator, a tractorlike piece of motorized equipment, "within inches of the remaining structures."

At 10:41 a.m., as Benschop operated the excavator, the remainder of the western wall fell onto the Salvation Army building's roof.

Four minutes later, Marinakos' phone rang. It was Campbell, telling him the wall had collapsed and begging him to get to the site. The architect went and "found Campbell in the chaos," the presentment says.

"Marinakos asked Campbell how this had happened, and Campbell admitted to him, 'He didn't take the wall down,' and stated, 'I'm sorry.' "

According to the presentment, the building should have been "taken down by hand, piece by piece, floor by floor."

Instead, Campbell's crew first removed interior wooden floors and joists supporting the masonry walls so he could resell the joists, the presentment says.

Some of the grand jury's words echoed findings issued Nov. 14 by federal investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, who cited Campbell's and Benschop's companies for safety violations and set fines totaling nearly $400,000. Hobson, Campbell's lawyer, has said he would contest those findings.

The district attorney said he had no doubt about who was to blame. Campbell was "at the center of culpability for the collapse," Williams said. "It was Campbell who decided on the method of demolition and who personally controlled it in the manner that caused the catastrophe."

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