Sean Benschop, center, with red jacket over his head, walks with investigators as he arrives at the Philadelphia Police Department’s Central Detectives Division, Saturday June 8, 2013, in Center City Philadelphia. (AP Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)
by Maryclaire Dale, Michael Rubinkam and Kathy Matheson
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A heavy equipment operator with a lengthy rap sheet who is accused of being high on marijuana when a downtown building collapsed onto a thrift store, killing six people, surrendered Saturday to face charges in the deaths, police said.
Sean Benschop faces six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of risking a catastrophe. A warrant had been issued for his arrest and police had been searching for him.
Authorities believe the 42-year-old Benschop had been using an excavator Wednesday when the remains of the four-story building gave way and toppled onto an attached Salvation Army thrift store, killing two employees and four customers and injuring 13 others.
Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said a toxicology report showed evidence that Benschop was high on marijuana. That finding, combined with witness statements and evidence from the scene, led to the decision Friday to raid his North Philadelphia home and later seek an arrest warrant, he said.
Benschop didn’t return phone messages left by The Associated Press at numbers listed in his name.
Benschop, who also goes by the name Kary Roberts, has been arrested at least 11 times since 1994 on charges ranging from drugs to theft to weapons possession, according to court records. He was twice sentenced to prison in the 1990s after being convicted on drug trafficking charges. Benschop’s last arrest, on a charge of aggravated assault, came in January 2012, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.
As the criminal investigation heated up, at least two survivors sued the demolition contractor and building owner, alleging gross recklessness at the job site.
The city, meanwhile, promised to crack down on the demolition industry.
“We can do much better,” Mayor Michael Nutter said at a news conference Friday. “We will not accept the status quo in the face of this tragedy.”
Nutter’s reform plan for construction sites includes random drug testing on heavy equipment operators.
“If that’s a factor here, that certainly takes things in a very different direction,” he said hours before the charges against Benschop were confirmed.
The mayor also pledged to adopt tougher background requirements for demolition contractors, including information about each worker’s experience, and more frequent site inspections when demolitions are underway.
His plan could run into resistance from builders who say they’re already highly regulated.