Michael Weiss, 47
The owner of two Brooklyn construction companies was charged with manslaughter on Wednesday because the authorities said he ignored complaints about a poorly maintained retaining wall that collapsed at a work site in 2015, killing an 18-year-old laborer and injuring two others.
The companies’ owner, Michael Weiss, 47, was also charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of the laborer, Fernando Vanegaz, an immigrant from Ecuador. In an indictment issued in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, Mr. Weiss was further accused of reckless endangerment, assault, grand larceny, tax fraud and falsifying business records. He could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the charges.
Mr. Weiss pleaded not guilty to all the charges and was released on bail.
“Fernando Vanegaz should be alive today,” Eric Gonzalez, the acting Brooklyn district attorney, said at a news conference announcing the charges. “Construction site deaths such as his are becoming all too common as builders ignore safety protocols and hire untrained workers to maximize profits.” Mr. Gonzalez added, “We cannot allow this robust housing market to come at the cost of worker safety.”
According to the indictment, on Sept. 3, 2015, Mr. Weiss ordered several employees of his companies, RSBY NY Builders Inc. and Park Ave Builders Inc., to conduct excavation in an area of a lot at 656 Myrtle Avenue where they had not received permission from city buildings officials to work. Despite repeated requests from his workers — and federal regulations requiring him to do so — Mr. Weiss did not provide materials to shore up an exposed wall of a building adjacent to the site, which his companies were converting from a one-story fruit store to a five-story structure intended to house a shoe store and apartments, the indictment said.
Fernando Vanegaz died on Sept. 3, 2015. “Construction site deaths such as his are becoming all too common as builders ignore safety protocols and hire untrained workers to maximize profits,” said Eric Gonzalez, the acting Brooklyn district attorney. Credit Brooklyn District Attorney's Office
Shortly before noon that day, a wall of the adjacent building gave way, sending a cascade of masonry blocks and debris onto three of his workers. Mr. Vanegaz, who had been in the United States for less than a year, died; two others were injured.
The death came amid a surge in fatal construction accidents in New York, and Mr. Gonzalez said on Wednesday that 33 workers had died in the five boroughs since January 2015. That spate of deaths prompted a crackdown on shoddy builders both by local district attorneys’ offices and by the city’s Investigation Department, which assisted in the inquiry into Mr. Weiss.
“We have seen the tragic results on construction sites too many times when contractors ignore repeated warnings of danger and put the lives of workers at risk,” Mark Peters, the commissioner of the Investigation Department, said at the news conference. “In this case, the warnings were clear, but the defendant disregarded them at a deadly cost.”
Mr. Weiss was not a licensed builder himself, Mr. Gonzalez said, and used the license of an unnamed co-conspirator to get the project approved by the city. He began working at the site in June 2015, the indictment said, and hired seven workers with little or no training and without federal safety certifications to conduct the demolition. Throughout the project, prosecutors said, several workers complained to Mr. Weiss that the excavation was unsafe because the exposed walls of the adjacent building were unstable and, in one case, cracked.
But Mr. Weiss ordered his workers to perform the job anyhow, the indictment said, ignoring the plans that he had filed with the Buildings Department. On the day before the accident, the workers had already dug more than six feet below the foundation of the adjacent structure, prosecutors said, undermining its strength. Then, on the day the wall collapsed, one worker asked Mr. Weiss for two-by-fours to shore the wall up, but Mr. Weiss told his team that it was working too slowly and ordered the workers to keep digging near the wall, prosecutors added.
The New York City Council recently passed a bill requiring the city to track deaths and injuries at construction sites. “This is a good first step in gathering information on who’s been hurt and what’s happening at these sites,” Mr. Gonzalez said of the measure, adding that most of the deaths occurred at nonunion jobs where companies were using “cheap, unskilled labor.”