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Contractor charged with murder in Philly collapse

Posted: November 25, 2013 4:10 p.m.
Updated: November 25, 2013 4:10 p.m.
 

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A cut-rate building contractor will face murder charges for a botched demolition in downtown Philadelphia that killed six people inside an adjacent store, officials announced Monday.

Prosecutors called Griffin Campbell "the center of culpability" for the June collapse, and said he ignored his client's warning the night before that disaster was imminent.

"The tragic and preventable collapse ... robbed our city of six amazing Philadelphians that perished in the rubble and left an additional 13 wounded," Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said at a news conference. "The motive was greed."

Campbell, 49, had a deadline to meet, was being paid a flat fee, and wanted to preserve as much salvageable material as he could, leading him to cut corners, Williams said. He charged Campbell with six counts each of third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, along with other charges.

Griffin's subcontractor, equipment operator Sean Benschop, had previously been charged with involuntary manslaughter, and remains in custody on $1.6 million bail.

The building owner who chose Campbell's $112,000 bid to take down three attached storefronts — when other bids were two or three times that amount — was not charged Monday. And his architect was given immunity in exchange for his grand jury testimony. However, the panel has not finished its work, and Williams declined to comment on whether owner Richard Basciano could be charged.

The collapse occurred when an unsupported brick wall crashed down onto a smaller Salvation Army store, trapping shoppers and workers in rubble. Campbell was also charged with risking a catastrophe, conspiracy and endangerment.

He was expected to surrender to police Monday. A call to his cellphone went unanswered, and his lawyer did not return a call for comment.

Benschop allegedly operated heavy equipment while high on marijuana and painkillers. In addition to the earlier charges, the grand jury charged him Monday with criminal conspiracy.

"Mr. Benschop had nothing to do with the planning of how that building was coming down. He showed up to work and the contractor told him what to do," defense lawyer Daine Grey said Monday.

Williams agreed that Campbell alone chose the demolition method and supervised the job site.

Rather than work from the top down and brace unsupported walls along the way, he instead had workers remove the building's facade, and then take out the lateral floor joints for salvage. That left the brick side walls unsupported.

Meanwhile, heavy equipment being used at the scene and trains running underneath the site caused vibrations that increased the risk of a collapse, they said.

"This was a clearly hazardous demolition, not just on the day of the accident, but on the days and weeks leading up to the accident," said lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi, who represents several victims' families.

"The shame of this accident is that this (demolition process) was debated back and forth between STB (Basciano's company) and the Salvation Army," he said, referring to emails that show the collapse was predicted while the parties bickered. "This was a game of chicken in which neither STB nor the Salvation Army wanted to blink."

Basciano, a commercial developer once dubbed the pornography king of New York's Times Square, was razing the run-down buildings to make way for redevelopment. His architect, Plato Marinakos, who had secured the demolition permit, testified before the grand jury after he was promised immunity.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Basciano, Campbell, Benschop and others. The victims' lawyers also accuse the city of lax oversight of the demolition process, but the city is generally immune from such lawsuits. One of the shoppers killed was 24-year-old Anne Bryan, the daughter of the city treasurer.

The most seriously injured survivor, 52-year-old Mariya Plekan, lost both legs after spending nearly 13 hours in the rubble.

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