Contractor convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2013 building collapse

Demolition contractor Griffin Campbell (left) was convicted of six counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2013 collapse of a Salvation Army in Center City that left six dead and 13 others injured.

Griffin Campbell, the North Philadelphia contractor who jumped at the chance to trade rehabbing houses for demolishing five Center City buildings, was found guilty Monday of involuntary manslaughter in the 2013 collapse that buried a Salvation Army thrift store, killing six and injuring 13.

The Common Pleas Court jury's verdict - it acquitted Campbell of six counts of third-degree murder and a conspiracy charge - spared the 51-year-old Hunting Park man a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, which he would have faced if he had been convicted of more than one murder count.

Still, Campbell's sentence - he has been held in prison without bail since his arrest on Nov. 25, 2013 - could be significant. Assistant District Attorneys Jennifer Selber and Edward Cameron said each manslaughter count carried a possible prison term of 21/2 to 5 years.

And Campbell was also found guilty of 13 counts of reckless endangerment (each a possible 1- to 2-year prison term), aggravated assault (10 to 20 years), and causing a catastrophe (71/2 to 15 years).

Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn B. Bronson tentatively set sentencing for Jan. 8 for Campbell, and for Sean Benschop, the operator of the 36,000-pound excavator that was key in the June 5, 2013, toppling of an unsupported wall of a four-story building under demolition at 22d and Market Streets.

In July, Benschop, 44, of North Philadelphia, pleaded guilty to six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 12 counts of reckless endangerment, one count of aggravated assault, and related charges in a deal with prosecutors for no more than 20 years in prison. Benschop testified against Campbell at trial.

Prosecutors said they were satisfied with the verdict.

"No verdict can replace the lives that were lost on that June morning, but I hope today's verdict brings more closure and healing to the friends and families of those who were injured and lost their lives," said District Attorney Seth Williams.

Williams called the verdict a "powerful reminder that job-site safety is paramount and if someone breaks the law . . . they will be punished to the fullest extent of the law."

The verdict was announced in a hushed courtroom dominated by a precise 1/32-scale model of the four-story Hoagie City building at 2136-38 Market St. and the adjacent one-story Salvation Army store.

On one side of the courtroom sat city Treasurer Nancy Winkler, whose 24-year-old daughter, Anne Bryan, was one of those killed, as she had throughout the 13-day trial.

At the end of that row was Aiha Boya, whose wife, Roseline Conteh, 52, died. Boya missed his wife's funeral because he could not get an emergency visa to travel from their native Sierra Leone. But he was in court every day.

On the other side of the room sat Campbell's family: Kim, his wife of 32 years; their four daughters; and his mother, Antoinette Chisholm, 73. They too were in court daily, quietly listening as Campbell was vilified by prosecutors and witnesses.

Family members for the accused or the victims would not comment afterward, leaving that to their lawyers.

Defense lawyer William D. Hobson called the trial "a tough battle" and said he hoped for a fair sentence from Bronson.

"It's a human tragedy that will forever be etched in the minds of the city," Hobson said. "Let's hope this is the end of it."

Hobson declined to comment on a possible appeal, but the collapse aftermath is far from over.

Lawyers for those injured and killed are preparing for trial on a consolidated lawsuit in Common Pleas Court set for Sept. 6.

Campbell and Benschop are also defendants in the civil litigation, but - unlike the criminal case - so are property owner Richard Basciano and his architect, Plato A. Marinakos Jr., who hired Campbell for the demolition of five buildings in the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market and monitored his progress.

Despite a two-year grand jury probe, Benschop and Campbell were the only two criminally charged and only Campbell went to trial.

Although Assistant District Attorney Cameron held out the possibility of additional prosecutions in his closing Friday to the jury, he also said that would depend on new evidence.

Steven G. Wigrizer, a lawyer representing the families of Conteh and Mary Simpson, Bryan's 24-year-old friend who died next to her, praised the prosecutors and jury. Wigrizer, however, said the victims' families would not get justice until Basciano, Marinakos, and the Salvation Army were made to answer in next year's civil trial.

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, the lawyer for Winkler and her husband, Jay Bryan, in the civil litigation, said afterward that for the couple "there is no satisfaction in any verdict, regardless of what is was," because it won't bring their daughter back.

Winkler is cochair of a foundation raising money for a memorial park for the collapse victims on land the Salvation Army donated at 22d and Market.

The jury of seven women and five men began deliberating late Friday afternoon and returned Monday at 9:30 a.m. They came into open court once, shortly before noon, to view two collapse videos shown at trial and a file of more than 30 photos of the site from June 2, 2013, until the collapse three days later.

The videos and photos showed a crucial point in the Hoagie City demolition: June 2 was the end of hand-demolition of the building and the start of using the excavator.

Prosecutors alleged that Campbell shortchanged public safety to maximize the salvage value of building materials. The excavator was picking at a back wall of the Hoagie City building when an unsupported three- to four-story brick wall toppled on the Salvation Army building.

Prosecution witnesses testified that Campbell was not supposed to use an excavator because the occupied Salvation Army building shared the party wall that fell.

Despite testimony that Campbell ignored the warning of his employees about the danger of the unbraced wall, the jury did not return guilty verdicts on the third-degree murder charge.

Involuntary manslaughter is a death caused by recklessness. Third-degree murder carries an additional element of malice, which prosecutors said the jury could infer from Campbell's ignoring his workers' warnings.

No one seemed surprised by the verdict. Wigrizer said he thought it unlikely the jury would find Campbell guilty of murder when Benschop pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and Marinakos got immunity.

Before trial, prosecutors offered Campbell the same deal as Benschop; Campbell rejected it.

Testifying in his defense, Campbell contradicted Marinakos and other prosecution witnesses, calling the collapse a horrible accident, not the result of his reckless disregard for safety.

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

215-854-2985@joeslobo

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