PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A heavy equipment operator charged in a building collapse that killed six people and injured 12 during a demolition project in downtown Philadelphia pleaded guilty Tuesday to manslaughter and other charges.
Prosecutors have agreed to recommend no more than 10 to 20 years when 44-year-old Sean Benschop is sentenced in October. Authorities say Benschop had previously been warned not to use machinery to demolish an unsupported brick wall.
Investigators believe the vibration from his excavator caused a four-story brick wall to collapse onto an adjacent one-story Salvation Army thrift store, burying shoppers and employees in debris. One woman lost both legs after spending nearly 13 hours in the rubble.
Benschop was also operating the machinery with a cast on his right hand after taking the painkiller Percocet for the injury and using marijuana the day of the June 2013 collapse, authorities have said.
He was working for a cut-rate demolition contractor, Griffin Campbell. Both men had been charged with six counts of third-degree murder.
Benschop, speaking softly, instead pleaded guilty to six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 12 counts of reckless endangerment, conspiracy and causing a catastrophe.
Campbell's lawyer said his client will fight the charges at trial.
"There are many, many parties much higher on the economic food chain and the political power chain and the money chain that are not ... charged with this tragic, epic accident," his lawyer, William Hobson, said Tuesday.
Private building owners seeking demolition permits at the time did not have to file demolition plans, prove their workers were qualified or show that their taxes had been paid, according to testimony at city council hearings held in the wake of the collapse. A city building inspector who once inspected the site killed himself days after the collapse.
The city has since upgraded its permit requirements.
Building owner Richard Basciano — who hired Campbell for $10,000, a fraction of the other bids — has not been charged, but prosecutors said the case remains active. Basciano, once known as the porn king of Times Square, was demolishing three attached buildings on a seedy stretch of downtown that was ripe for redevelopment.
The six killed include a pair of 24-year-old artist friends shopping at the store and a newly engaged woman working her first day there. Their families have worked to get a park built at the site in their memory.
Benschop's common-law wife of 20 years said his plea "shows he's remorseful for whatever part it's believed he played." Tynisha Gregory described Benshop as a hard-working family man.
"He went out to work one day and didn't come home because of an accident," she said, referring to his arrest and incarceration. "Unfortunately, people were killed, so I understand their pain. They want justice, and Sean's taking responsibility."
Benschop, who also goes by the name Kary Roberts, had been arrested nearly a dozen times since 1994 on drug, weapons and other charges. The native of Guyana has six children and an eighth-grade education.
Many of the collapse victims and their families have filed civil lawsuits against the defendants, Basciano, the Salvation Army and others.
"Sean Benschop's conduct was unforgivable. But others played a role in killing our daughter and have yet to be held accountable," city treasurer Nancy Winkler and her husband, Jay Bryan, said in a statement about the loss of their art-student daughter, Anne Bryan. "We continue to wait for all those responsible to break their silence and answer questions about their outrageous conduct leading up to the fatal building collapse."