2 held for trial in fatal building collapse

Posted: February 20, 2014

SEAN BENSCHOP and Griffin Campbell, arrested in last June's horrific Market Street building collapse that killed six, were held for trial on all charges yesterday.

That was about the only thing on which the prosecution and defense attorneys agreed after a four-hour preliminary hearing before Municipal Judge Teresa Carr Deni.

Prosecutors said both defendants had been warned about dangerous demolition practices before the collapse, which is why each was charged with six counts of third-degree murder. Convictions would result in automatic life sentences for both men, who are held without bail.

"To operate a 36,000-pound piece of equipment that rumbles and vibrates and makes noises and bangs into the adjoining building is the epitome of recklessness," said Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Selber, who argued the case with colleague Edward Cameron.

Defense attorneys, however, emerged from the courthouse claiming that Benschop, 42, an excavator operator, and Campbell, 49, the demolition contractor who hired him, are scapegoats for city officials who turned a tragic accident into a crime for political reasons.

" 'Scapegoats' is putting it mildly. I feel outraged. I feel our clients are being politically and economically enslaved. They are at the bottom of the power chain," said attorney William D. Hobson, who represents Campbell and told Deni that any negligence on his client's part should be dealt with in civil court.

Jay Bryan, whose daughter Anne, 24, was among those killed, praised the proceedings.

"We're gratified that the defendants are being held for trial. We're gratified that it sounds like the investigation is ongoing, and we hope that everyone will be held accountable from bottom to top," said Bryan, as his wife, City Treasurer Nancy Winkler, stood beside him with tears in her eyes.

It was just after 10:40 a.m. June 5, when Benschop, operating an excavator to demolish a building at 2136 Market St., caused an unsupported wall of that building to fall onto the roof of the Salvation Army thrift store next door.

Trapped in the rubble with the six people who died were 13 others, including a woman whose legs had to be amputated.

Campbell and Benschop yesterday also were held for trial on six counts of involuntary manslaughter, multiple counts of reckless endangerment and related charges.

An investigating grand jury is at work behind closed doors, but Selber declined to say what was being investigated or if more indictments were imminent.

Benschop's attorney, Daine Grey, said his client was merely an employee of Campbell's who was following orders in demolishing the building, which is owned by Richard Basciano's New York-based STB Investments Corp.

"My client shouldn't be charged with murder," Grey said. "He didn't intentionally or recklessly do anything."

But police Officer Gary Harrison, of the Accident Investigation Division, testified yesterday that during a hospital interview with Benschop two hours after the collapse he observed that the defendant's eyes were bloodshot, his voice wispy and his lips darkened, all consistent with someone who recently had smoked marijuana.

Two blood tests found enough marijuana in Benschop's system to have affected his cognitive and motor skills, making it impossible to operate heavy equipment, Selber said.

Grey said that the substance in Benschop's blood was from a prescription medication, not marijuana, and that he would prove that at trial.

Plato Marinakos Jr., an architect hired by Basciano, testified that the day before the Market Street collapse he told Campbell that the unsupported wall adjacent to the thrift store was dangerous and had to be taken down by hand immediately.

Campbell said it would be done that night and called the next morning to say it had been, said Marinakos, who was granted immunity from prosecution by the District Attorney's Office.

But later that morning Campbell frantically reported the wall had collapsed, Marinakos said.

" 'Sorry, I didn't take the wall down,' " Marinakos said he recalled Campbell saying.

On Twitter: @MensahDean

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