Contractor fights murder charges at building collapse trial

AP News
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Posted: Sep 29, 2015 4:48 PM
Contractor fights murder charges at building collapse trial

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A demolition contractor charged with murder after a building collapse killed six people inside a thrift store is set to go on trial in Philadelphia after refusing to plead to involuntary manslaughter.

Lawyers spent Tuesday picking jurors for the trial of 51-year-old Griffin Campbell, who is facing six counts of third-degree murder. His attorney, William Hobson, insists that Campbell has been made a scapegoat for the June 2013 collapse, which killed four Salvation Army customers and two employees, and left 13 others buried in rubble.

Investigators accuse Campbell of leaving a four-story brick wall unsupported before it collapsed on the small thrift store. Campbell had removed the support beams so he could sell them for salvage, authorities said.

Subcontractor Sean Benschop, who was operating an excavator to knock the wall down, has pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the six deaths and is expected to testify against Campbell. Prosecutors, as part of the plea, will recommend that he serve 10 to 20 years in prison.

Campbell faces a life sentence if he is convicted of more than one count of third-degree murder. The victims include two young artist friends, a newly engaged woman working her first day at the store, and a mother of nine from Sierra Leone.

One 52-year-old woman found alive after hours in the rubble lost both legs.

Building owner Richard Basciano, who had chosen Campbell's cut-rate $112,000 bid for the demolition work, has not been charged. Basciano, once dubbed the porn king of Times Square, was redeveloping the long-seedy block at the edge of Philadelphia's business hub. He was on site talking to Campbell when the bricks came crashing down.

Basciano and the Salvation Army had been feuding over the demolition plan, according to emails later released by the city. The store nonetheless stayed open.

A city building inspector for the area committed suicide days after the collapse, although investigators found he had done nothing wrong.

Civil lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims accuse the city of lax oversight of demolition projects. Their families have raised money to turn the site into a memorial park.