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Contractor Gets Rare Homicide Conviction in Death of Crushed Brooklyn Worker

Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, who prosecuted the case, said the construction collapse that killed Luis Sánchez was a preventable tragedy.

March 4, 2023 Claudia Irizarry Aponte, The City
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A construction company operator was convicted Thursday in connection with the death of laborer Luis Sánchez Almonte, who was fatally crushed by 15,000 pounds of debris on a Sunset Park job site in 2018.

In a bench trial, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny K. Chun convicted Jiaxi “Jimmy” Liu of the construction group WSC Group of criminally negligent homicide, in addition to offenses related to workers compensation fraud.

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 pursued the case in cooperation with the city Department of Investigation and Department of Buildings.

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Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announces an indictment against the operators of a Sunset Park construction company on manslaughter and other charges after a wall collapsed at an excavation site, killing construction worker Luis Sánchez Almonte.
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announcing the indictments | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Chun also convicted Wilson Garcia, the site foreperson, with criminal mischief in the fourth degree and faces one year in jail. Liu and Garcia, 48, both of Staten Island, will be sentenced on April 26.

“Today’s verdict should send a strong message that when contractors cut corners and put their workers’ safety at risk — they will face serious and criminal repercussions,” Brooklyn district attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement on Thursday.

Gonzalez added that Sánchez Almonte’s death “was a preventable tragedy that would have been avoided if the operator of the construction site followed all safety protocols or heeded warnings about unsafe conditions.”

Over the course of several hearings beginning in mid-November, Chun heard evidence that the two men failed to respond to concerns from workers that the site was unsafe – or the wall that ultimately crushed Sánchez Almonte was at risk of collapsing.

It took authorities more than 28 hours to extract the remains of 47-year-old Sánchez Almonte, a laborer from the Dominican Republic, as the remnants of Hurricane Florence poured over Brooklyn on Sept. 12, 2018.

THE CITY investigated the following year, documenting safety warnings ignored by Liu, Garcia and other individuals responsible for the 39th Street building demolition and excavation site.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that WSC Group had ignored a cave-in warning at the site prior to the collapse. OSHA issued two citations against the company in March 2019, totaling $63,647. One was for a “willful” violation of federal construction safety regulations, the most serious category.

Dangerous Conditions Ignored

The convictions of Liu and Garcia stemmed from a 28-count indictment brought by Gonzalez in November 2019, including manslaughter counts against both men and the site engineer, Paul Bailey.

It was not the first time Liu had been the target of law enforcement. Three years before Sánchez Almonte’s death, Liu was one of 50 people charged following a bribery probe by DOI and the Manhattan District Attorney. Eleven Department of Buildings employees and another five from the city’s housing agency were swept up in the investigation.

In that case, Liu pleaded guilty to third-degree attempted bribery, a felony, and was sentenced to 38 days of community service and a $5,000 fine.

The Brooklyn DA’s investigation found Liu refused to stop work on the 39th Street site despite warnings of dangerous conditions from workers and adjacent property owners. Liu and Garcia — who as the foreperson on the site OSHA considered a “competent person” authorized to identify safety hazards — also failed to report the conditions to the DOB.

“This was no mistake, this was not an accident, what happened,” Gonzalez said at the time. “This was a direct result of owner recklessness and neglect.”

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 the Brooklyn DA’s office

Prosecutors agreed to drop the manslaughter charges against Bailey, the site engineer, in Dec. 2021 when he pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and misdemeanor reckless endangerment in the second degree. Bailey also surrendered his license and stated in court he would no longer practice as part of the deal.

Two other co-defendants also previously entered guilty pleas: Liu’s brother, 52-year old Jia Rong Liu, the owner of WSG Group, to petit larceny, and the company’s bookkeeper Cindy Chai, 45, to tax fraud.

Criminal charges in connection with construction deaths are unusual in an industry that is New York’s deadliest, and in which Latino men, like Sánchez Almonte, are statistically the most vulnerable.

Gov. Kathy Hochul recently signed Carlos’ Law, which will increase penalties for criminal corporate liability for the death or serious physical injury of an employee to a fine of up to $500,000. The bill was named after construction worker Carlos Moncoya, who died on the job in Manhattan in 2015.

Sánchez Almonte was a welder in his native Dominican Republic before moving to New York in 2016, two years before his death, and settling in Inwood. A relative did not respond to a request for comment.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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