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Worker arrested in Philadelphia building collapse had long criminal record

Philadelphia Police via AP

Sean Benschop faces six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of risking a catastrophe.

The man who operated a backhoe at the site of Wednesday's deadly building collapse in downtown Philadelphia had an extensive criminal history prior to his most recent arrest.

Since 1994, Sean Benschop, 42, was arrested nine times and was found guilty three times for possession of controlled substances, according to court documents.

Benschop surrendered to authorities Saturday at Central Detectives around 3:30 p.m. He was accompanied by his wife, parents and attorney. Benschop covered his head with a red jacket as he was taken into custody. He was also wearing a cast on his right arm.

His attorney, Daine Grey, Jr. said Benschop was with family members as police searched for him late Friday night.

“He is just a scapegoat and we intend to prove that he had nothing to do with this catastrophe," said Grey. "He and his family are extremely sympathetic and remorseful with respect to what happened. This was an accident. Mr. Benschop is not responsible and we believe that in time the facts will show that he is not responsible."

An arrest warrant was issued for Benschop, a married father of two, Friday night. He is charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter as well as 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person, causing a catastrophe and risking a catastrophe. Sources tell NBC10 Benschop is being held on $1.9 million bail, $150,000 for each of the 13 reckless endangerment charges. He did not receive any bail on the six charges of involuntary manslaughter, according to sources.

Sources also say that Benschop had marijuana and prescription painkillers in his blood two hours after the outer wall of 2136 Market Street tumbled down onto the Salvation Army Thrift Shop Wednesday morning.

"I'm saying he was not under the influence at the time of the accident,” Grey told NBC10.com.

In a warrant obtained by NBC10's Nefertiti Jaquez, the doctor who examined Benschop after the collapse said the amount of marijuana in his blood rendered him unfit to properly and safely perform job related duties.

Benschop admitted to police that he had been taking Percocet because he injured his right arm in an incident at a prior work site, according to investigators. Grey says Benschop was wearing the cast while operating the backhoe Wednesday but it did not interfere with his ability to do his job. Grey did not indicate how Benschop injured his arm.

Matt Rourke / AP, file

Firefighters view the aftermath of a building collapse in Philadelphia on Thursday.

"He was completely able to operate a backhoe," said Grey. "There was nothing that would have stopped him for operating it. He operated it safely as he always does and he did not violate the law in any capacity."

Sources tell NBC10 while Benschop claims he was removing materials from the 4th floor of the building at the time it came crashing down, witnesses tell police Benschop knocked down the support beam with a backhoe.

Benschop has been a backhoe operator for more than 13 years, according to Grey.

“He is very experienced," Grey said. "He has worked with a number of contractors throughout the region. All the contractors have found him professional and found that he did his work with the highest regard for the safety of those around him. He did what he could do to prevent this injury. Unfortunately his efforts were not enough and we are dealing with the consequences today.”

Mayor Michael Nutter issued a statement Saturday night regarding Benschop’s surrender.

"Sean Benschop finally turned himself in to authorities today. It is because of his reckless and irresponsible behavior that six people died and thirteen people were hurt and buried under debris and bricks.

"It is my hope that the harshest level of charges are brought against Sean Benschop and he is punished accordingly. We must also seek answers from property owners Richard Basciano and Griffin T. Campbell who hired Benschop to do the significant job of operating heavy equipment. These three individuals bear the ultimate and sole responsibility for this tragedy. Justice will only be served if Sean Benschop receives a sentence that buries him in a jailhouse forever, just like his victims were buried on Wednesday.

"Let us keep all the families affected by this horrific event in our thoughts and prayers, and never forget what happened that day."

"Just like you could find me, you could find my lawyer," said Benschop. "I have an attorney and you could talk to the attorney. I don't have anything to say to you."

When asked whether he was on drugs when the collapse happened Wednesday, Benschop hung up the phone.

Philadelphia Police detectives raided Benschop's home along the 4900 block of North 7th Street in the Olney section of Philadelphia around 4:30 p.m. Friday.

NBC10 was there as detectives removed boxes filled with documents and a yellow safety vest, notebook, desktop computers and a hard drive from the home.

Neighbors tell NBC10 that investigators were asking them if they had seen Benschop. Neighbors replied they hadn't seen him in some time.

Neighbors said Benschop would regularly drive the backhoe from his home in Olney to work sites around the city.

The Center City collapse buried nearly two dozen people under brick, cement and wood. Six people were killed and 13 hurt in the collapse. One woman was buried for 13 hours under rubble before being rescued.

Sources say Benschop was taken to a nearby hospital after the four-story building came down to take a blood and urine test. Those tests were expedited for quick results.

Benschop is a convicted felon and lists himself as self-employed, sources say.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office's Homicide Unit was at the collapse scene Thursday. The DA Office's spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson said at the time it was too early to comment further on criminal charges.

Benschop was operating the backhoe for demolition contractor Griffin Campbell Construction. City officials stopped work at two other Griffin Campbell sites in the city's Midtown Village section on Thursday.

Construction company owner Griffin Campbell had a valid contractor license, issued this January, but owed thousands of dollars in unpaid city, state and federal business taxes.

Campbell, 49, also has a criminal history — having pleaded guilty to theft and insurance fraud charges in 2009.

Construction workers and everyday citizens called Griffin Campbell Construction's demolition practices at the site into question prior to and following the collapse.

A month before the collapse, Stephen Field told the City of Philadelphia's Philly311 customer service center about a lack of safety gear being used by workers as they hacked away at the brick building. He also voiced his concern that pedestrians could be hit by falling debris or that a complete collapse could happen.

City officials said they sent out a building inspector to an adjacent work site at 2134 Market Street after being provided with that site's address. They say the inspector found no violations. Officials also said demolition work had not begun at the site of Wednesday's collapse and so that demolition project was never inspected.

Field disputed that claim, saying there was "no doubt" both buildings were being demolished at the same time. City officials have not responded to Field's dispute.

A construction worker, who witnessed the collapse, claims there was no lateral bracing to support the wall of the building as the demolition took place.

"We were working across the street," said Dan Gillis. "The guy on the crane, you could see him grab a piece of steel pulling on it. The wall had no bracing, no blocking, nothing. It was just kind of 30 to 40 feet in the air. They started pulling on the steel and the wall was swaying back and forth. Eventually it just went over." 

A lawsuit has already been filed on behalf of two of the victims — one shopper and one employee.

Crews had been working to clear the collapse site since Wednesday, but work was halted Saturday as attorneys involved in the suit are allowed to inspect the site and remove evidence.

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