Contractor in Center City collapse held without bail

PHILADELPHIA - November 27, 2013

Prosecutors described Griffin Campbell as "the center of culpability for the collapse," and said he ignored an architect's warning the night before that disaster was imminent. He was charged with six counts each of third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

"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.

Griffin's subcontractor, equipment operator Sean Benschop, was charged this summer with involuntary manslaughter over the June collapse, and has been in custody.

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. However, the grand jury has not finished its work, and Williams declined comment on whether owner Richard Basciano could be charged.

In the collapse, an unsupported brick wall crashed down onto a neighboring Salvation Army store, trapping shoppers and workers. Campbell was also charged with risking a catastrophe and criminal conspiracy in addition to the six counts of third-degree murder, six counts of involuntary manslaughter and 13 counts of endangerment.

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.

Williams said Campbell alone chose the demolition method, cutting corners to meet a deadline and cut costs, as he was being paid a flat fee.

Rather than work from the top down and brace unsupported walls, Campbell instead removed the building's facade, then took out floor joists that he was given the right to salvage from the front of the four-story building to the back, authorities said. That left the brick side walls unsupported.

Meanwhile, heavy equipment being used at the scene and trains running underneath the site caused vibrations that made for an added risk, 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. All the while, the thrift store stayed open for business.

"This was a game of chicken in which neither STB nor the Salvation Army wanted to blink, and six Philadelphians paid with their lives," Mongeluzzi said.

Basciano, a commercial developer once dubbed the pornography king of New York's Times Square, owned three adjacent, long run-down storefronts being razed to make way for redevelopment. His architect, Plato Marinakos, who had secured the demolition permit from City Hall, 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 victims was the 24-year-old daughter of the city treasurer.

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