Philadelphia should be proud of the civil trial jury that found all five defendants guilty in the June 2013 collapse of a wall during a botched demolition project, which left six people dead and seven injured inside a Salvation Army thrift shop. One more died 23 days later.
Greed was also on trial, and it lost. The jury looked past the workers who became fall guys and are serving prison sentences. On Tuesday, it placed ultimate blame exactly where it belonged: on the moneyed interests at the top who set up this tragedy with their bad decisions.
This dose of Philly-style justice for the little people sends a powerful message that rich defendants may hire the most powerful lawyers and escape criminal charges, but they won’t get away with hurting the innocent.
On a warm June day inside the thrift shop at 22nd and Market Streets, people working, shopping, and donating items were killed and maimed when an unsupported wall crashed down on the store. None of the victims would have been in the shop if the Salvation Army had paid attention to warnings from the building’s owner that the wall was unstable. For that, the jury included the Salvation Army among the guilty.
Also found guilty was Richard Basciano, owner of STB Investments Corp., who for years has disrespected the city. Following in the footsteps of his late partner, Sam Rappaport, Basciano acquired valuable buildings in the city’s heart and instead of rehabilitating them let the properties rot to the point that they tore down the quality of life for everyone else in the area.
Basciano’s porn hub at 22nd and Market Streets included a XXX-movie theater and an exotic dancing bar, which made the neighborhood one of the last dark holes hamstringing Center City’s rebirth. In the end, he even tried to get City Hall to help him turn his holdings into gold.
The collapse trial jury looked past all of that, as well as Basciano’s pity play when he broke down in tears during trial testimony, and rightly found him culpable.
The jurors showed more wisdom than District Attorney Seth Williams, who granted architect Plato Marinakos immunity if he would testify against Sean Benshop, the pot-smoking excavator operator who sent the wall tumbling, and Griffin Campbell, the inexperienced and reckless contractor who cut corners and botched the job.
Benshop and Campbell were correctly found guilty of criminal charges, and will pay a token share of civil damages. But their convictions alone was incomplete justice. It left free to carry on with their lives both Basciano, who sought the cheap demolition job, and Marinakos, whose failure to monitor the work opened the door for disaster.
Basciano and Marinakos should have stopped the job when it became apparent that the wall might collapse on the thrift shop. Instead, they asked the Salvation Army to let them use its building to complete the work while warning that the site was unstable. The Salvation Army ignored that warning, so it too must pay for its arrogance.
The jury returns Friday to decide how much money the guilty should pay. That won’t end this tragedy for the victims’ survivors, who can never be fully compensated with money for their loss. But by raining righteous justice on the guilty, the jury has struck a blow for all of Philadelphia against those who think nothing of harming its people.