Demo contractor goes on trial for building collapse deaths

AP News
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Posted: Sep 30, 2015 5:50 PM
Demo contractor goes on trial for building collapse deaths

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A small-time contractor "valued money over human life" when he cut corners on a demolition project, causing a building collapse that killed six people inside a thrift store, prosecutors said Wednesday as his murder trial opened.

Griffin Campbell's lawyer painted him as a scapegoat in the June 2013 collapse in downtown Philadelphia, which left 13 people trapped in rubble. Attorney William Hobson accused the city of lax oversight of demolition work, which came to a halt citywide afterward as officials ordered emergency inspections.

Campbell, 51, had been hired to raze three attached buildings with a cut-rate bid of $112,000, about a third of the next lowest bid. He could also keep whatever he could salvage. Campbell therefore "cannibalized" the building from the inside, removing the floors and support beams that stabilized the four-story walls, prosecutors said.

By the morning of June 5, 2013, all that remained of the former Hoagie City building was an unstable, 30-foot high brick wall attached to the one-story Salvation Army building.

The real estate mogul redeveloping his long-held strip of seedy storefronts at the edge of the city's business district — former Times Square "porn king" Richard Basciano — had been unable to buy the corner thrift store, so the busy shop remained open.

"When that wall collapsed, it totally crushed that Salvation Army, and everyone inside," Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Selber, the homicide chief, said in her opening statement.

The victims included two young artist friends dropping off donations, a mother of nine buying clothes to send to her native Sierra Leone and a newly engaged woman working her first day at the store. One survivor lost both legs after being trapped for 13 hours.

"He valued money over human life," Selber said of the defendant, who faces a life sentence if jurors find he acted with malice and convict him of more than one count of third-degree murder.

They could also find him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the charge offered in a plea agreement that Campbell rejected.

Subcontractor Sean Benschop, who was operating heavy equipment at the site, accepted that plea and will testify for prosecutors. Benschop, who had a cast on his right hand after losing part of his finger, was taking the painkiller Percocet that day. He also smoked marijuana several times a day for medical reasons, Selber said.

Hobson suggested those facts alone make him more culpable than Campbell.

He said his client was trying to earn a living despite a felony record and "a limited skill set" that did not include an understanding of "the principles of lateral support and design."

"If you think it's difficult enough getting work when you're from North Philadelphia, try getting work when you're a convicted felon from North Philadelphia," Hobson said.

Basciano has not been charged in the case. His architect, Plato Marinakos, who hired Campbell for the job, has been granted limited immunity for his testimony.

The trial is expected to last nearly a month.