SEAN BENSCHOP, the excavator operator criminally charged in the deaths of six people who were killed in the Salvation Army building collapse two years ago, is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to involuntary manslaughter.
"One of the main reasons he is pleading guilty is he wants to take responsibility for his actions and the responsibility he bears for the loss of life," his attorney Bill Davis told the Daily News.
"He [Benschop] cries and prays almost every night for those people who lost their lives and their families," the attorney said.
Benschop had warned the general contractor on the job about the dangers of the unstable, free-standing wall next to the Salvation Army, but the contractor didn't act on Benschop's recommendations, Davis said, referring to Benschop's co-defendant, Griffin Campbell.
The collapse of the Salvation Army building at 22nd and Market streets in Center City at about 10:45 a.m. June 5, 2013, occurred when a three-story wall of an adjacent building being demolished fell onto the thrift store. Six people were killed and 13 people were injured, including one who has since died.
Benschop, 45, and Campbell, 51, the demolition contractor, were both criminally charged with six counts of third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter; 12 counts of recklessly endangering another person; causing a catastrophe; conspiracy and related offenses.
In addition to pleading guilty to six counts of involuntary manslaughter, Benschop is expected to plead guilty to 12 counts of recklessly endangering another person, a count of causing a catastrophe, and a count of conspiracy, Davis said this weekend.
The charges of involuntary manslaughter and recklessly endangering another person are misdemeanors; causing a catastrophe is a felony.
Davis said Benschop's plea will be "an open plea. It will be up to the judge to decide the sentence. The only agreement is that the prosecution will not ask for more than 10 years to 20 years" in prison.
Prosecutors will be dropping the six counts of third-degree murder against Benschop, Davis said. If Benschop were to go to trial and were convicted of more than one count of third-degree murder, the conviction would carry a mandatory life sentence.
Benschop, who has been jailed since 2013, considers the plea to be "a fair resolution" to his case, Davis said. A native of Guyana, Benschop is married and has six children and two grandchildren.
A video of the demolition work site taken by a person standing on the other side of Market Street that morning showed Benschop working the excavator on the east side of the building at the time of the west wall's collapse, Davis said.
Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Selber, chief of the D.A.'s Homicide Unit and one of two prosecutors handling the case, responded by e-mail that she could not comment on the expected plea because of the ongoing case with the co-defendant.
'Recognized the danger'
Davis said Benschop knew that the building adjacent to the Salvation Army store "was not being taken down in the proper way" and "recognized the danger of the free-standing wall" on the west side next to the thrift store. "He shared his concerns with the general contractor on multiple occasions," Davis said, referring to Campbell but not naming him.
Benschop owned a small demolition company for two decades, but was a day laborer on this job, Davis said. He recognized that the west wall needed to be taken down by laborers using hand tools, the attorney said.
Benschop recommended to the general contractor that a lift be placed some distance away from the Salvation Army to allow workers to knock the wall down with hand tools so the bricks would fall into the demolition area, the attorney said. And he recommended that it be done after business hours to avoid foot traffic in the area, Davis said.
Benschop's wife, Tynisha Gregory, who was a partner in his demolition company, got an estimate from a crane company with an available lift that would have allowed workers to take down the free-standing wall by hand, Davis said.
That estimate was presented to Campbell, but Benschop "was told by the general contractor that the general contractor wasn't going to rent a lift and was going to find another way to take the wall down," Davis said.
A few days before the collapse, Davis said, photos show that two laborers were on the roof of the Salvation Army and placed a ladder there after business hours to begin taking the free-standing wall down by hand. They only worked for a few hours and accomplished little, Davis said.
Davis said the two workers were properly knocking the bricks down with hand tools into the demolition area, but they should have taken the wall down "to the level of the roof of the Salvation Army so it couldn't collapse onto the Salvation Army. Those guys - I don't know what their instructions were," he said. "They took maybe two feet of wall down."
On the morning of the collapse, Benschop reported to work, Davis said. "He expressed his concerns about the wall again to the general contractor. He was told to do his job," Davis said.
The video taken by the person across Market Street showed "multiple people working in the footprint" of the building being demolished using hand tools, Davis said. But, "you can't see anybody making contact or working on that west wall when it collapsed."
What caused the collapse?
"That's like the million-dollar question, right?" Davis replied.
"As Mr. Benschop's attorney, having reviewed the evidence, the building was being demolished in an improper fashion that created a dangerous situation with this free-standing wall on the west side of the building. I don't think anybody can say conclusively what the trigger was that caused the wall to collapse.
"Because at the point of the collapse, the wall was so unstable that there could have been any number of causes," Davis said.
Davis added: "To the extent that his [Benschop's] use of the excavator in the general job site contributed to the collapse of the wall and the loss of life, not a day goes by when Mr. Benschop doesn't regret his decision to carry on with his work and not just walk away from the job site."
Benschop's wife said through Davis Sunday that her husband has "always been a family guy" and "has repeatedly expressed how horrible he feels for the loss of the six families who lost loved ones."
Blood tests showed Benschop had marijuana in his system that day. Benschop, at a pretrial motions hearing in May, testified he had smoked marijuana the evening before the collapse, but not that day.
Regarding the marijuana, Davis said: "Mr. Benschop is steadfast in his contention that he was sober and completely capable of doing the demolition work that he was doing at the time of the accident."
Campbell, who has been jailed since 2013, faces a motions hearing Friday before Common Pleas Judge Glenn Bronson.
Jury selection in his trial is scheduled for Sept. 21, but could change because of the World Meeting of Families and the pope's visit later that week.
Campbell's attorney, William Hobson, said Sunday: "My client's not guilty. My client's going to trial."
Because of a limited gag order in the case, Hobson said he would have to wait until trial to comment on statements made by Benschop with regard to alleged warnings he gave to Campbell about the demolition dangers.
Benschop's "guilty plea shows that Sean Benschop is accepting criminal responsibility as to the building collapse," Hobson said. "As to the rest of Mr. Benschop's allegations through counsel, I must await our day in court."