By Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY
”A construction company operator, foreperson and engineer responsible for the Sunset Park construction site where laborer Luis Sánchez Almonte was crushed to death by debris in September 2018 have been indicted for manslaughter, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced Thursday.
Pressing a rare criminal case in connection with a construction death, prosecutors said they found that Jiaxi “Jimmy” Liu of the construction firm WSC Group refused to stop work after repeated warnings of dangerous conditions at the site from workers and adjacent property owners.
Sánchez Almonte “never had a chance under these conditions,” Gonzalez said at a news conference announcing the indictments.
THE CITY reported earlier this year on Sánchez Almonte’s death and events leading up to it, including safety warnings ignored by Liu and other individuals responsible for the site.
Besides Liu, foreperson Wilson Garcia and inspecting engineer Paul Bailey, along with their firms, were indicted for manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.
Also indicted on charges of reckless endangerment were WSC Group owner and Liu’s brother Jia “Tommy” Rong Liu and Siu Wah Maria Cheung-Mui, who was in charge of site safety, according to the Brooklyn DA. The indictments include numerous counts against the Liu brothers for insurance, workers’ compensation and tax fraud.
Shown above: The defendants. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
The five defendants and WSC bookkeeper Cindy Chai, also indicted for insurance fraud, all pleaded not guilty at arraignment Thursday afternoon.
In announcing the indictments, Gonzalez described a “massive excavation” undertaken, he alleged, without heed to submitted building plans or to warnings given by alarmed neighbors and workers about the need to shore up a deep pit.
“I want to make it clear: This was no mistake, this was not an accident, what happened,” Gonzalez said. “This was a direct result of owner recklessness and neglect and the people who were in charge of this project were simply motivated by monetary reasons. They were willing to overlook the safety of their workers to advance how quickly they could get the job done and how much money they could make.”
Prior Bribery Case
It took rescue workers more than 28 hours to extract the remains of Sánchez Almonte, a 47-year-old Dominican laborer, as the remnants of Hurricane Florence poured over Brooklyn on Sept. 12, 2018.
As previously reported by THE CITY, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration found last winter that WSC Group ignored a cave-in warning at the site prior to the collapse. OSHA issued two citations against the company, fining it $63,647. One was for a “willful” violation of federal construction safety regulations, the most serious category.
The DA’s office worked with the city Department of Investigation, Department of Buildings, and OSHA in probing the killing. This isn’t the first time Liu has been under the thumb of local law enforcement.
Three years before the deadly collapse, Liu also was one of 50 people charged in 2015 following a bribery probe by the DOI and Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Eleven Department of Buildings employees and another five from the city’s housing agency were swept up in the investigation.
Prosecutors at the time alleged that Liu had teamed up with two DOB inspectors to concoct a phony stop-work order for a Coney Island project – then sought and received payment from the building’s owners to get the order lifted.
At the time, Liu was registered with the Department of Buildings under the corporate name WS Construction Inc.
That November, Liu pleaded guilty to third-degree attempted bribery, a felony, and was sentenced to 38 days of community service and a $5,000 fine, prosecutors said.
Rare Criminal Charges
Criminal charges in connection with construction deaths are unusual in an industry that statistically is New York City’s most deadly.
In the last four years, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has twice brought manslaughter charges against contractors in construction deaths.
Vance charged contractor Harco Construction with manslaughter in the 2015 death of worker Carlos Moncayo, who was buried when a wall collapsed at a construction site on the West Side. Harco was convicted at trial.
And Vance charged SSC High Rise Inc. with manslaughter in the 2017 death of worker Juan Chonillo, who fell 29 stories to his death at a job site near the former South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. SSC pleaded guilty to manslaughter last year.
Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit work-safety group, said criminal prosecutions of contractors for worker deaths are rare because they are hard to prove.
“It’s really difficult for the district attorneys to go after contractors for construction deaths because they have to prove criminal negligence, which is a pretty high bar,” she said.
Obernauer noted that workers are often reluctant to cooperate because they fear they’ll be blackballed from future jobs. She added that it’s often impossible to prove that an on-site supervisor knew about unsafe conditions before a fatality.
Said Ligia Guallpa, co-executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, which advocates for immigrant laborers: “This sends a strong message to other DAs to hold negligent contractors accountable. It sends out a signal to contractors and everyone on the chain of command that if you’re not doing the right thing and providing a safe work environment, you will face consequences. This is huge.”
Sánchez Almonte was a welder is his native Dominican Republic, and moved from there to Inwood, Manhattan in 2016. His nephew Andy Monsanto, a cab driver who has lived in the city for about 20 years, helped him get settled.
In an interview with THE CITY in February, Monsanto was still bewildered at the circumstances around his uncle’s death. “Nobody had it out for him. He was just working.”
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.