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July 21, 2015

Crane operator pleads guilty in Salvation Army building collapse

Crime Building Collapse
Salvation Army Matt Rourke/AP

A Salvation Army thrift store is demolished in the aftermath of a building collapse, Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Philadelphia.

The crane operator involved in the deadly Market Street building collapse of June 2013 has pleaded guilty to six involuntary manslaughter charges Tuesday.

Sean Benschop, 43, had faced multiple counts of third-degree murder after six people were killed and 14 others were injured when a brick wall from a nearby building undergoing demolition collapsed on the roof of a Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22nd and Market streets. Prosecutors claim the demolition was done improperly, causing the collapse.

Juanita Harmon, Roseline Conteh, Mary Simpson, Kimberly Finnegan, Ann Bryan and Borbor Davis were killed. Maria Pukan suffered a serious and permanent injury, prosecutors said.

Benschop also plead guilty to charges of aggravated assault, conspiracy, causing a catastrophe and seven counts of reckless endangerment. The maximum sentence he could receive for his guilty pleas is 94 years in prison. In a plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of between 10 and 20 years. 

In court, Benschop made simple statements to the judge, saying "yes sir" when he was asked whether or not he understood he was giving up his right to a trial. He uttered the single word "guilty" when asked how he plead to the charges. His voice did not waver during his appearance as his family members watched from courtroom benches.

“Most of us can recall the tragic image of a free-standing, unbraced wall coming down on the Salvation Army building; a building that was open for business with employees and customers inside,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams in a statement. “The death of six people and the injury of twelve others was nothing short of heartbreaking and I continue to offer my condolences and prayers for the survivors and families whose lives were forever altered on June 5, 2013."

Shortly after sentencing, Benschop's wife, Tynisha Gregory spoke briefly outside the courthouse to reporters. In a voice stressed with emotion, she said her husband "was remorseful, he is sorry for what happened. My heart goes out to the victims of this tragedy."

"He has accepted every responsibility he felt he had in this matter. And that should stand for something, that should show he is a man of integrity." 

Demolition contractor Griffin Campbell also faces murder charges and has been called by prosecutors the "center of culpability" in the case.

Blood tests revealed that Benschop had marijuana and prescription narcotics in his system on June 5, 2013, the date of the fatal collapse. William D. Hobson, Campbell's lawyer,  said his client is not criminally culpable. He placed the blame, in part, on Benschop, pointing to the toxicology tests.

"He was under [prescription] Percocet, he was smoking marijuana, you can not hold Griffin Campbell criminally responsible for the actions of Sean Benschop," Hobson said adding that he was ready for his client's trial. Hobson said there were others who were not indicted who were also responsible.

"There are many many parties much higher on the economic food chain, and the political power chain, and the money chain, that are ... not charged with this tragic, epic accident," Hobson said.

Sean Benschop, center, with red jacket over his head, arrives to turn himself into detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department on June 8, 2013. (Joseph Kaczmarek, File / AP)

Benschop's defense lawyer, William Davis, said that drugs did not play a role in what happened. He said Benschop felt terrible about the loss of life and took responsibility for his role in the catastrophe. Part of the plea agreement involves Benschop promising to cooperate and, if necessary, to testify at Campbell's trial, his attorney said.

"From the time that I first met him, he was deeply remorseful for the fact that he had any part to play in the tragic loss of life," said Davis.

In addition, Davis said Benschop had raised concerns about how the demolition was going to proceed before the collapse.

"Mr. Benschop was a day laborer, he knew how the job should have been going," said Davis. "He was not in charge of how the job was going."

"He takes responsibly because ultimately, he knew that the wall that eventually fell was dangerous. He knew how it should be done and he takes responsibly because he could have walked away from the job site and he didn’t, he continued to work."

The wall should have been taken down more carefully, Davis said.

"He told [a higher up] how the job should have been proceeding, that hand demolition was the right way to take down a building in that setting," Davis said.  "I think we all know that it wasn’t done that way and this tragedy resulted."

Benschop will be sentenced after Campbell's trial, which is scheduled to begin on September 21, 2015. 

The city of Philadelphia commemorated the second anniversary of the collapse last month with an announcement of progress toward a planned memorial at the site. Mayor Michael Nutter went on record stating that nothing should ever be built again at that corner.