Architect grilled by lawyers for ex-business associates in building collapse trial

Plato Marinakos Jr.​ was the supervising architect on the project that resulted in a deadly building collapse in 2013 .

By all accounts, Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr. was the key player in real estate speculator Richard Basciano's plan to raze five run-down buildings in Center City to make way for a residential-commercial complex to be called Gateway.

Marinakos made project design sketches, got construction and demolition permits, recommended a local contractor to raze the buildings on the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market Street, and wrote a contract naming himself the on-site representative for Basciano and his STB Investments Corp.

And when an unsupported wall remaining from the demolition of Basciano's Hoagie City building collapsed and killed six people inside the adjacent Salvation Army thrift store on June 5, 2013, Marinakos got a grant of immunity from prosecution and recast himself as the indispensable witness for the District Attorney's Office.

On Tuesday, the 50-year-old architect was back on the witness stand in the Philadelphia civil trial involving the collapse, trying to answer questions from lawyers for his former business associates and to convince the jury that he was not that indispensable after all.

During questioning late Monday and again Tuesday, defense lawyer Thomas A. Sprague, whose firm represents the 91-year-old Basciano and STB, said Marinakos violated the terms of his contract by not looking out for Basciano's interests.

Sprague cited Marinakos' testimony in which he described his June 4, 2013, visit to the demolition site of the four-story Hoagie City building.

Marinakos said that when he saw an unbraced multistory brick wall towering over the Salvation Army store, he immediately called demolition contractor Griffin Campbell and ordered him to take down the wall by morning.

Marinakos said Campbell told him he would erect scaffolds and work overnight, something Campbell has denied.

Marinakos, however, said he did not call city building inspectors, police or fire personnel, the Salvation Army, or STB about what he saw the day before the wall toppled and crushed the thrift store.

"On June 4, when you saw that condition of the west wall . . . weren't you required to report it to the owner?" asked Sprague.

"That's correct," conceded Marinakos.

Marinakos testified that he did not report what he has called a dangerous situation because he trusted Campbell's ability to safely demolish the wall by morning.

Sprague also suggested that Marinakos conducted a sham bidding process for the demolition contract and steered the work to Campbell, exaggerating Campbell's experience in demolition.

In emails to STB property manager Thomas Simmonds, Marinakos recommended Campbell and said he had 20 years' experience.

Campbell, in testimony earlier in the trial, said that his experience was razing two burned-out rowhouses in North Philadelphia but that the architect assured him, "The contract is yours."

Sprague also challenged Marinakos on his contract with STB: "No one asked you to create a contract for yourself as owner's representative."

Marinakos rejected Sprague's insinuations about the contract for Campbell and himself. He told the jury that the final decision about hiring Campbell and him belonged to Basciano and STB.

Neither ever asked questions or did any due diligence research, Marinakos said.

Marinakos said the contracts he drafted for himself and Campbell benefited STB and all the parties in the project.

Whom to believe will be up to the Common Pleas Court jury, which will be asked to decide which - if any - of the defendants should be held financially liable for the collapse.

In addition to Marinakos, Basciano, and STB, the Salvation Army has been sued in what the plaintiffs' lawyers have described as a chain of negligent conduct that began with Basciano and continued down to Campbell.

The lawsuit contends the Salvation Army ignored STB danger warnings and never told store employees or customers of the danger of an imminent collapse.

Campbell and excavator operator Sean Benschop, the only two people criminally charged, also are being sued.

Benschop pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter; Campbell was convicted of involuntary manslaughter at trial last year. Both are serving long prison terms and are considered penniless.

215-854-2985 @joeslobo