PHILADELPHIA (AP) – A second Philadelphia demolition worker has been charged with murder in the deaths of six people killed when a brick wall being taken down collapsed onto an adjacent thrift store last summer.
A judge upgraded charges Tuesday against backhoe operator Sean Benschop to six counts of third-degree murder after hearing new evidence at a preliminary hearing.
A city inspector testified that Benschop had previously been warned at another job site not to use heavy equipment near an unstable wall, especially with an occupied building nearby, prosecutors said.
“It was just such a wildly unstable situation. You can’t be operating heavy machinery in that circumstance. The vibrations alone could knock down an unsupported wall,” Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Selber, chief of the homicide unit, said after the hearing.
Testimony about the previous warning, four months before the collapse, shows recklessness and warrants the third-degree murder charges against Benschop, she said.
Benschop, who allegedly had marijuana and painkillers in his system that day, had earlier been charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter. His lawyer has called him a scapegoat for mistakes made by the contractor and others, and has argued that Benschop took orders at the site from the contractor. The defense attorney did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.
The collapse occurred when an unsupported brick wall crashed down onto a smaller Salvation Army store in June, trapping shoppers and workers in rubble.
Also Tuesday, Common Pleas Judge Teresa Carr Deni upheld the same murder and involuntary manslaughter charges against demolition contractor Griffin Campbell. Additionally, both men are charged with conspiracy, causing a catastrophe and other charges. Campbell’s lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment.
Prosecutors have called Campbell “the center of culpability” for the deadly collapse, and said he ignored his client’s warning the night before that disaster was imminent.
Other witnesses Tuesday included survivor Nadine White, a Salvation Army worker pulled from the rubble by a firefighter. She testified that workers were concerned before the collapse about vibrations and dust from the demolition project.
Building owner Richard Basciano, who chose Campbell’s $112,000 bid to take down three attached storefronts when other bids were two or three times that amount, has not been charged. His architect was given immunity in exchange for his grand jury testimony. The grand jury has not finished its work, and more charges could be filed.
Benschop and Campbell remain in prison, awaiting trial. No trial date has been set.
Several civil lawsuits have also been filed over the six deaths and 13 injuries.
(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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