Murder Charges in Philadelphia Building Collapse


Murder charges have been brought against the building contractor in Philadelphia whose demolition of a building caused it to collapse in June, killing six people and causing injury to 13 more.

The district attorney of Philadelphia, R. Seth Williams, confirmed the charges against Griffin T. Campbell, a 49-year-old contractor.  The charges include numerous counts of reckless endangerment, involuntary manslaughter and third-degree murder as well as counts of risking and causing catastrophe and criminal conspiracy.

Campbell was indicted upon the recommendation of a grand jury.  The 42-year-old operator of the 36,000-pound excavation machine, Sean Benschop, had been charged previously with multiple counts of reckless endangerment and involuntary manslaughter as well as a single count of reckless catastrophe.  It is thought that the vibrations from his excavator was the cause of the collapse of the unsupported wall.  The grand jury recommended that Benschop face an additional charge of criminal conspiracy.

Benschop, aka Kary Roberts, tested positive for marijuana in the days following the collapse and was arrested.  He has been in custody with a $1.55 million bail set against him until his preliminary hearing on Dec. 10.

The Philadelphia grand jury, when deciding to suggest that he be charged with murder, found that Campbell was a central part of the building’s collapse, which occurred because load-bearing parts of the building’s structure were removed early on in the demolition, which left the remaining walls and floors unsupported.  Williams blames Campbell for the collapse because as the building contractor, he determined the demolition method and controlled the site personally.  Williams also believes that because Campbell was being paid a fixed rate for the building demolition, his main concern was to do the work for as little money as possible while retaining the scrap for resale.  He believes that the supporting joists were of particular concern to Campbell due to their higher resale value.

According to the D.A., Campbell was warned of an impending collapse by an architect one day before the building came down.  The architect noted to Campbell that because his workers had removed the bricks, braces and joists that had supported it, a 4-story wall left standing was in danger of collapse.  Although Campbell vowed to the architect that he would build scaffolding and demolish the wall by hand the next morning, he did not do so because he was not willing to hire additional laborers to do it.  Campbell phoned the architect on June 5 and told him that the wall had been removed, even though it was still standing.

One and a half hours later, that wall along with the the rest of the building’s other walls collapsed, causing tons of debris and bricks to fall onto the roof of an adjacent Salvation Army store that was filled with employees and shoppers at the time.

Several victims’ families have brought civil lawsuits against the building’s owner, Richard Basciano, and Campbell.  To date, Basciano has not been charged criminally, although according to the district attorney’s office, the grand jury’s investigation is ongoing.  Basciano, as part of STB Investments Corporation, was demolishing a row of buildings on the block in order to remove a pornographic movie theater and peep show and build a mixed residential/retail development.  He had owned the properties for 19 years.

Although Campbell himself had no statement when turning himself in, his attorney declared the collapse a tragic accident and declared his client’s innocence.  Due to the seriousness of the crimes with which he is charged, prosecutors are planning to ask that Campbell be denied bail.  If found guilty of the murder and other charges against him, Campbell could receive sentences equaling life in a prison for his culpability in the Philadelphia building collapse.

By Jennifer Pfalz

New York Times