Two face trial on third-degree murder charges in deadly Philly collapse
The general contractor and excavator operator charged in connection with last summer's deadly building collapse in Center City Philadelphia will both stand trial on third-degree murder charges.
Following a lengthy preliminary hearing Tuesday, a city judge held Griffin Campbell and Sean Benschop on charges of third-degree murder, conspiracy, reckless endangerment and other offenses in the June 5 collapse at 22nd and Market streets that claimed six lives and injured 14 others.
Prosecutors said they were pleased. Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Selber said both defendants knew they were working dangerously.
"You have an occupied structure in the Salvation Army. Everybody knew it was going to open for business the next day. And that every customer that came in and every person that worked there was going to be in immediate danger," she said. "And then, on top of that, to operate a 36,000-pound piece of equipment that rumbles and vibrates and makes noise and bangs into the adjoining building is the epitome of recklessness."
Tuesday's packed, four-hour preliminary hearing zeroed in on the three days prior to the collapse, when a freestanding, four-story brick wall collapsed and crushed an adjoining Salvation Army Thrift Store during demolition.
Prosecutors argued the site quickly became a safety hazard during that period when all lateral supports were removed from the wall that ultimately "pancaked" onto the retail shop and 22nd Street.
"This is not a small point, this is a huge point," said Selber.
Plato Marinakos, the architect and permit expediter who hired Griffin Campbell to be the general contractor, testified Tuesday that he stopped by the site about 6 p.m. the night before the collapse and saw the unsupported wall.
"You can't leave a wall unbraced like that," Marinakos recalled telling Campbell.
Campbell said he'd take care of the wall, said Marinakos, but never did. What's more, he lied the next morning and said he had, said Marinakos.
"I was incredulous. I couldn't believe that building collapsed," said Marinakos of the second call Campbell made that morning. "It was a total disaster."
Marinakos was granted immunity from criminal prosecution in exchange for being a witness in the Philadelphia district attorney's ongoing grand jury investigation of the collapse.
Previous problem on demolition site
Prosecutors also argued that Benschop knew that using an excavator near a freestanding wall on a site next to an occupied building was dangerous, but proceeded anyway.
They pointed to a residential job he worked last February that resulted in a citation from the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections.
Scott Mulderig, head of L&I's Emergency Services and Abatement Unit, said he watched Benschop use a backhoe to demolish a South Philadelphia home flanked by two occupied properties, a violation of the city's building code.
Mulderig found an unsupported wall at the site too. L&I issued Benschop's boss a citation as a result of the mistakes.
When it came to the Market Street site, Mulderig could not say what specifically caused the collapse, but prosecutors maintained Benschop knew better because of Mulderig's visit.
Mulderig and Marinakos both said demolition should have been done by hand, not with heavy machinery.
Photos and videos were used throughout the four-plus hour hearing to show the condition of the demolition site before and after the wall fell.
In one video, obtained from an approaching SEPTA bus the day of the collapse, several pedestrians standing near the site are shown being engulfed by dust and barely avoiding disaster.
Following Tuesday's hearing, Daine Grey, Benschop's attorney, said he was "flabbergasted" that his client's case was moving forward. He has always maintained that his client is innocent.
"Everybody who followed direction to take a joist down or to take some of the flooring down, could be found liable," said Grey. "Sean did nothing more than anybody else. The only difference is instead of possibly using a hammer to take a joist out he used a machine, which Griffin rented to perform his duties. He didn't do anything wrong. He followed directions."
Bill Hobson, Campbell's attorney, did not address reporters outside of court after Tuesday's preliminary hearing. He has called Campbell and Benschop scapegoats.
Campbell and Benschop will be arraigned on March 11. They will both wait for that date behind bars.
Grey said the trial won't likely start until some time in 2015.