In September 2018, Luis Almonte Sanchez was crushed to death when a retaining wall fell on top of him while working at a nonunion construction site in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It took rescue workers more than a day to pull the broken body of the 47-year-old immigrant out of the tens of thousands of pounds of rubble.
Thursday morning, three individuals and two companies were indicted for charges related to his death, including the construction site’s operator, Jiaxi “Jimmy” Liu, according to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.
“They ignored repeated warnings from their own workers, and from neighbors who lived adjacent to that property, of the imminent danger of a potential collapse,” Gonzales said in a press conference on Thursday.
Liu, 46, the site’s foreman Wilson Garcia, 45, and engineer Paul Bailey, 56, were charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other related charges.
Another three individuals, Jia Rong “Tommy” Liu, Siu Wah Maria Cheung-Mui and Cindy Chai, were indicted on lesser charges related to the accident. The associated companies — WSC Group LLC, WS Construction Inc and Bailey’s Engineering. P.C. — were also named in the indictment.
“I’ve waited for the moment when people would take interest in this,” Andy Monsanto, Almonte Sanchez’s nephew, told Documented on Thursday following the announcement. “I feel justice is finally being done.”
Tragic but Preventable
On the afternoon of September 12, 2018, Liu and Wilson ordered six men employed by WSC Group to perform work on a wall at a construction site located at 714 39th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, according to the complaint. One of them was Almonte Sanchez.
The wall was supposed to have a support system, but it was inadequately installed, according to the indictment and an OSHA investigation of the incident. At around 2 p.m., it collapsed. As the workers scrambled to escape, Almonte Sanchez was struck and buried by debris weighing between 15,000 and 45,000 pounds.
Individuals assigned to ensure the safety of the site were present that day, but failed to perform mandated safety checks and did not stop the laborers from continuing work that morning, the complaint alleges.
Just hours before the collapse, site safety inspector Cheung-Mui “was present at the site but did not enter to assess the conditions due to heavy rain and mud,” the indictment reads.
Those same conditions delayed the rescue effort after the collapse. In the end, it took 28 hours to unearth Almonte’s body, which was crushed beyond recognition.
“It was tragic, but it was also very preventable,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said during the press conference.
The site had multiple design issues, the indictment said, and warnings from other workers and neighbors that the site was unstable went ignored.
Playing Fast And Loose With Safety Protocols
This is not the first time Liu and Garcia faced charges together for construction-related work. This incident is a case study of the lapses in enforcement that riddle the construction industry as bad actors are allowed to continue to operate, sometimes by simply changing their company name.
In 2016 Liu was accused of conspiring with Garcia, then a DOB employee, to create a false order to halt construction on a site he was running. He then solicited cash from the property owner to resolve the fraudulent fine, according to the earlier indictment. That charge was part of a mass round-up by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., of some 50 city employees, contractors and property owners.
Liu pleaded guilty and lost his business license that same year. But in 2018, under a new company name, he allegedly paid another contractor, Jorge Espejo, of Ground to Sky Construction, to obtain permits for the site where Almonte died, the recent complaint said. Espejo then hired Liu as the subcontractor. A second Brooklyn site with a similar arrangement between Liu and Bailey is named in the indictment. That site was shut down by OSHA for safety violations, but work continued anyway, the complaint said.
“Despite a construction-related conviction for attempted bribery a few years earlier, the construction company operator allegedly continued to play fast and loose with safety protocols, taking shortcuts to increase profit margins – this time with deadly consequences,” Gonzalez said in a press release.
Ground to Sky had no role in the construction project where Almonte worked, despite being registered as the contractor overseeing the site with the Department of Buildings, the indictment said. When Documented attempted to contact Ground to Sky by phone on Thursday, the person who answered confirmed it was the correct number for the company but refused to comment.
The arrangement was possible because the DOB, which issues permits for construction projects in the city, checks the licenses of the contractors doing the work. It does not have oversight of companies hired as subcontractors.
“It’s [the general contractor’s] responsibility to make sure that the subcontractors that they hire are working within the law and properly vetted,” said Abigail Kuntz, a spokesperson for the DOB, while speaking to Documented in April.
The City’s Deadliest Industry
Almonte Sanchez was the first of six of laborers to die over the following seven months, causing the DOB to deploy 90 new inspectors to perform “safety sweeps” at construction sites throughout the city in April.
Construction is the deadliest industry in New York City — two more construction workers were killed just last month. In response to the recent spate of accidents, city building inspectors announced they would conduct another sweep of some 6,000 construction sites to check for safety violations ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, the New York Daily News reported Thursday.
“Cutting corners on the work site costs lives,” said DOB commissioner Melanie La Rocca in a press release. “Luis Almonte Sanchez is no longer with us due to the defendants’ callous disregard for even the most basic excavation safety regulations, in service of padding their own bank accounts.”
“This conduct led directly to the death of Luis Almonte Sanchez,” Brooklyn DA Gonzales said. “This conduct is not just unacceptable and dangerous, it is criminal.”
The indictment also claims that WSC Group defrauded the New York State Insurance Fund of nearly $47,000 by making false statements about their employees and committing tax fraud by failing to file taxes between 2015 and 2018. It allegedly owes more than $28,000 for 2015 and 2016.
She Still Thinks he Fell
Almonte, an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was living in Washington Heights at the time of the accident. His family said that he was working to help pay for medicine for his mother, who lives in the Dominican Republic.
His sister Angie Monsanto said investigators called to inform her about the arrests of the people allegedly responsible for his death yesterday morning. She’s relieved, but won’t be telling their mother – she said she still doesn’t know the true nature of the accident.
“She still thinks he fell off something,” Monsanto said. “Our mother is sick, and the truth might kill her.”
Bri Arreguin-Malloy contributed reporting to this story.