By Miguel Cruz Tejada
NEW YORK – A construction company operator was convicted Thursday concerning the death of worker Luis Sánchez Almonte, who was fatally crushed by 15,000 pounds of debris at a Sunset Park job site in 2018.
In a non-jury trial, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny K. Chun convicted Jiaxi “Jimmy” Liu of the construction group WSC Group of criminally negligent homicide and workers’ compensation fraud crimes.
It was a rare criminal conviction in connection with a workplace death. Liu, 49, now faces a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez prosecuted the case in cooperation with the city’s Department of Investigation and Department of Buildings.
Chun also convicted Wilson Garcia, the site foreman, of fourth-degree criminal mischief and faced up to a year in jail. Liu and Garcia, 48, of Staten Island, will be sentenced on April 26.
“Today’s verdict should send a strong message that when contractors cut corners and put the safety of their workers at risk, they will face serious and criminal repercussions,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement Thursday.
González added that the death of Sánchez Almonte “was a preventable tragedy that would have been avoided if the operator of the construction site had followed all safety protocols or heeded warnings about unsafe conditions.”
Throughout several hearings beginning in mid-November, Chun heard evidence that the two men failed to respond to worker concerns that the site was unsafe or that the wall that ultimately crushed Sánchez Almonte was at risk. to collapse
It took authorities more than 28 hours to remove the remains of Sánchez Almonte, 47, a worker from the Dominican Republic, as debris from Hurricane Florence spilled over Brooklyn on September 12, 2018.
The city investigated the following year, documenting safety warnings ignored by Liu, Garcia, and others responsible for the 39th Street building excavation and demolition site.
The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that WSC Group had ignored a cave-in warning at the site before the collapse. OSHA issued two citations against the company in March 2019, totaling $63,647. One was for a “willful” violation of federal building safety regulations, the most serious category.
The convictions of Liu and Garcia stemmed from a 28-count indictment filed by Gonzalez in November 2019, including manslaughter charges against both men and site engineer Paul Bailey.
It was not the first time that the police had targeted Liu. Three years before Sánchez Almonte’s death, Liu was one of 50 people charged following a bribery investigation by the DOI and the Manhattan district attorney. Eleven employees of the Department of Buildings and five others from the city’s housing agency were dragged into the investigation.
In that case, Liu pleaded guilty to attempted bribery in the third degree, a felony, and was sentenced to 38 days of community service and a $5,000 fine.
The Brooklyn district attorney’s investigation found that Liu refused to halt work on the 39th Street site despite warnings of dangerous conditions from workers and adjacent property owners. As OSHA considered an on-site foreman a “competent person” authorized to identify safety hazards, Liu and Garcia did not report the conditions to DOB.
“This was not a mistake, this was not an accident, what happened,” González said at the time. “This was a direct result of the owner’s recklessness and negligence.”
Investigators also found that WSC defrauded the New York State Insurance Fund by making false statements about who it was employing and also committed tax fraud by failing to file taxes between 2015 and 2018, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
Prosecutors agreed to drop manslaughter charges against Bailey, the site engineer, in December 2021 when he pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and second-degree misdemeanor reckless endangerment. Bailey also turned over his license and stated in court that he would no longer practice as part of the agreement.
Two other co-defendants also pleaded guilty: Liu’s brother, Jia Rong Liu, 52, owner of WSG Group, to petty theft, and the comp’s accountant.