Griffin Campbell is forgotten victim of Salvation Army collapse

The family of Griffin Campbell, convicted in the Salvation Army collapse is the eight victim of the tragedy. From left to right: daughters Ciani, 16, Ame'lla, 23 (holding one-week old son, Munir Griffin Campbell), wife Kim Lee (holding Dominque's son Brandon Turner) daughter Dominque, 31 (holding her daughter Shyla Green).

Seven people lost their lives when Richard Basciano ordered his team to speed up the demolition of his Market Street properties so he could cash in on Philadelphia’s development boom. But the collapse of the Salvation Army thrift store produced an eighth victim, and he is slowly rotting in a state prison 250 miles west of Philadelphia.

Demolition contractor Griffin Campbell, the can-do neighborhood guy from Nicetown who was determined to make life better for his wife and four daughters, is the only person in this group-enabled tragedy who was tried and convicted in a criminal court. 

He didn’t run away from the site after it erupted in a mushroom cloud of bricks and dust, but stayed to help dig out the victims. He didn’t seek immunity from prosecution as architect Plato Marinakos Jr. did. He didn’t take the Fifth like Basciano, or accept a plea deal, as excavator Sean Benschop chose to do. Campbell naively believed that the judicial system would recognize he was a bit player in a terrible accident and would punish him accordingly.

Instead, he was given a sentence of 15 to 30 years.

Compare that harsh punishment with the sentences handed out in the similarly shocking Pier 34 nightclub collapse, which took the lives of three young women in 2000. Even though owner Michael Asbell and manager Eli Karetny knew for weeks that the structure was unsafe, their sentences amounted to a year's house arrest and a thousand hours of community service. Given that Pennsylvania doesn’t parole convicts until they have served their minimum sentence, Campbell, now 53, doesn’t stand a chance of being released from state prison until he is 65. 

The unfairness of Campbell’s treatment is worth recalling in light of the verdict that a civil jury delivered recently in a lawsuit brought by the victims’ families. The jury determined that all five defendants, including the Salvation Army, contributed in varying degrees to the fatal collapse. But of those five, only Campbell did not behave negligently, the jury decided. Even Benschop, who cut a plea deal for 7½ to 15 years, was found to bear a degree of negligence.

So why is Campbell the guy doing hard time?

Before we get to that, there are some things you should know about the man from Broad and Erie in North Philadelphia whom everyone calls “Griff.”  While there may be people who never work a day in their lives, Campbell, by all accounts, worked every single day of his life. Campbell dropped out of high school in Willingboro, N.J., but that didn’t mean he wasn’t driven, his wife, Kim Lee, told me when I visited the Campbell family in their Nicetown home. 

As we sat around a roaring gas fireplace with three of their four daughters, Lee recalled with a broad smile how she met Campbell at the town pool when both were in their teens. That was 33 years ago. Initially, Campbell worked a series of low-wage jobs -- at a gas station, steel plant, diner. Then, in a lucky break, a relative offered the couple a beat-up food truck.

For the next 15 years, Campbell and Lee spent every weekday inside the tight galley kitchen, dishing out chicken wings and meatball sandwiches to government workers from the Social Security office at 13th and Wallace. They invested their profits in a deep fryer and a freezer. On the weekends, Campbell did small construction jobs to bring in extra income. 

“He was a great dad, a great husband, just a good person,” Lee said. When he had extra work, she said, he would often drag along one of the teens who sold drugs in the neighborhood, telling him there was a better way to make a living.

Campbell had a second lucky break after a family friend gave him a rowhouse shell on Pike Street. Once Campbell fixed it up and rented it out, he started scouring the area for more houses. Pretty soon, he was a small landlord with five rental properties. He and Lee gave up the food truck so he could focus on his business. It was a family affair that employed his two eldest daughters, Dominique and Akea, both 31.

Through his renovation work, Campbell got to know Tobias Biddle, a Philadelphia real estate agent nicknamed the “King of the Fixer-Upper.” Campbell was big and burly, but also good-natured and funny, “someone who got my sarcastic sense of humor,” Biddle told me. “He was a hustler, and very resourceful,” said the agent, who hired him to clean out and demolish rowhouses.

That’s how Campbell ended up meeting Marinakos, the architect whom Basciano employed to oversee the Market Street demolitions. Marinakos had done expediting for Biddle -- he still does -- and he liked Campbell’s work. Biddle said he was a little surprised when he heard Marinakos was bringing Campbell in on the Market Street job. Campbell didn’t own a lot of the usual construction machinery.

For Campbell, the Center City job was his big break -- “his lift off,” Dominique recalled him saying. Instead, his dreams came crashing down along with the party wall. “When I heard people had died there, my heart just sank,” Biddle said.

Throughout the criminal trial, Campbell was portrayed as someone who was in over his head and unqualified for such a complex demolition. But neither Marinakos nor Basciano had ever attempted a major downtown development, either. 

What they did know was how to navigate the system. Even while victims were still trapped in the rubble, Marinakos, the Ivy League-educated son of a health-care executive, was on the phone with his lawyer, beginning the process that would win him immunity from prosecution. It never occurred to Campbell to contact the district attorney, Dominique said, “because he thought Plato had his back.”

Normally, prosecutors give immunity to the person who can help catch the big fish. In this case, District Attorney Seth Williams' office went hard after a minnow, indicting the two -- Campbell and Benschop -- who were both poor and black. When Campbell's defense lawyer asked for crucial transcripts produced during the grand jury phase, prosecutors demanded Campbell pay $5,000 for the documents, an impossible sum. He never got them to use in his defense. 

During the civil trial, lawyer Richard Sprague, a fearsome former prosecutor, expressed astonishment that it was Campbell, not Marinakos, who was indicted. He didn’t use the word scapegoat, but he should have.

Now that Basciano, Mariankos, and the Salvation Army have all been found negligent in the seven deaths, it will cost them millions in damages. But insurance companies will pick up the bill, and they will go on with their lives.

Although the prosecutor and judge say race wasn’t a factor in how things turned out, the NAACP doesn’t see it that way. It is funding an appeal to overturn Campbell’s conviction. It needs to raise thousands to pay for transcripts.

Lee and her daughters won’t be able to help. After Campbell was jailed, they lost his rental properties to foreclosure. Lee and Dominique had to find new jobs, and they are struggling to hold on to the family's six-bedroom house, home to three generations. Dominique said she feels defeated, and observed, "If you're an African American man, you just can't succeed."

As long as Campbell's sentence stands, it will send a message that there are two types of justice -- one for those with money and connections, and one for those without.