Demo contractor convicted in Philadelphia building collapse

AP News
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Posted: Oct 19, 2015 10:45 PM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A cut-rate demolition contractor was found guilty of manslaughter Monday, more than two years after a towering wall fell on a busy thrift store, killing six people.

A jury convicted Griffin Campbell of six counts of involuntary manslaughter, rejecting the third-degree murder charges sought by prosecutors who said Campbell ignored warnings of an imminent collapse.

Campbell described himself as a scapegoat for the architect overseeing the demolition of a seedy downtown block, and in his testimony last week called the collapse "an accident."

However, prosecutors said he controlled the worksite and lied about how the demolition was being done. Their experts said he caused the unsupported wall to fall on the adjacent thrift store by cutting corners on the job in June 2013.

One survivor lost both legs after spending 13 hours trapped in the rubble. A dozen other people were injured.

Subcontractor Sean Benschop testified that he was using heavy equipment nearby when the wall crashed onto the Salvation Army store, instead of doing the delicate job by hand.

"When I saw the building like that, I should have walked away," Benschop testified, explaining why he pleaded guilty in the case. "I had my family to feed and I had bills to pay."

He pleaded guilty to six counts of involuntary manslaughter, and faces a maximum 10 to 20 years in prison. Campbell turned down the chance to forge a similar plea. He could face a much stiffer sentence if the manslaughter counts are run consecutively.

Campbell was also convicted of aggravated assault and risking a catastrophe. His lawyer tried to shift the blame to building owner Richard Basciano, project architect Plato Marinakos and others. Basciano, once dubbed the Porn King of Times Square, wanted the wall brought down quickly so he could redevelop the strip of low-end stores.

Campbell had gutted the support beams and joists to sell them for salvage, leaving the four-story walls unstable, prosecutors said.

Both Campbell and Benschop had prior prison records, but were trying to support families through contracting and demolition work. Campbell's $112,000 bid for the work was a fraction of the other bids.

The victims included two young artist friends dropping off donations, a woman buying clothes to send to her native Sierra Leone and a woman working her first day at the store.

The collapse led city officials to revamp the requirements needed to get a demolition permit. A city inspector who had checked on the project last spring killed himself days after the collapse.

The victims' families have filed lawsuits against Basciano, the Salvation Army, Campbell and others. City treasurer Nancy Winkler and her husband, Jay Bryan, who lost their 24-year-old daughter Anne Bryan and attended the three-week trial, said in a statement Monday that they will now focus on "the fault of everyone involved, not just one individual."

Campbell's lawyer agreed.

"The civil litigation will ... tell the complete and true story of all the participants and all the players," lawyer William Hobson said Monday, "layers ... far above Griffin Campbell and Sean Benschop."