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Contractor charged with murder in Philly collapse

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PHILADELPHIA » The contractor who oversaw a botched building demolition that killed six people in a Salvation Army thrift store in Philadelphia was charged with murder, manslaughter and reckless endangerment today.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said Griffin Campbell was also charged with risking a catastrophe and criminal conspiracy in addition to the six counts of third-degree murder, six counts of involuntary manslaughter and 13 counts of endangerment. In the collapse, an unsupported wall crashed down onto the neighboring thrift store, trapping and killing shoppers inside.

A call to Campbell’s cellphone went unanswered but he was expected to surrender to detectives this afternoon.

The charges are the first since excavator operator Sean Benschop was charged this summer with six counts of involuntary manslaughter for allegedly operating heavy equipment while high on marijuana and painkillers.

Williams said the collapse remains under investigation but called Campbell the person "at the center of culpability for the collapse." He told reporters that Campbell ignored an architect’s warning the night before the June 5 collapse to brace the wall.

"The tragic and preventable collapse … robbed our city of six amazing Philadelphians that perished in the rubble and left an additional 13 wounded," Williams said.

Campbell alone chose the demolition method, cutting corners to meet a deadline and cut costs, as he was being paid a flat fee, Williams said.

He was also given the right to salvage floor joints and other material, so he pulled the valuable floor joists out first, destabilizing the exterior walls, Williams said.

A YouTube video taken days before the collapse shows a machine with a claw being used to knock down the facade, and bricks raining down on the open sidewalk. There was also no scaffolding in place to remove an unsupported 40-foot brick wall, which tumbled onto the one-story thrift store, burying the six dead and 13 survivors.

Building owner Richard Basciano was not charged with any crimes today, and Williams declined to comment on his fate. However, the grand jury will continue to hear evidence in the case.

Basciano’s architect, Plato Marinakos, who had secured the demolition permit, testified before the grand jury after he was promised immunity.

Basciano, once dubbed the pornography king of New York’s Times Square, owned the three run-down storefronts being razed.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Basciano, a commercial developer hoping to redevelop the block, along with Campbell, Benschop and others. The victims’ lawyers also accuse the city of lax oversight of the demolition process, but the city is generally immune from such lawsuits. One of the victims was the 24-year-old daughter of the city treasurer.

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