By Julie Shapiro, Olivia Scheck and Nicole Bode
MANHATTAN — A judge has found the John Galt construction company and a third contractor not guilty in the 2007 Deutsche Bank fire that left two firefighters dead, capping off a sweeping blow to prosecutors who were unable to secure convictions to any of the individuals charged.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Rena Uviller found Mitchell Alvo not guilty of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide Wednesday morning, and said the John Galt Corp. was also not guilty of the top charges brought against the company responsible for the demolition of the building.
The company was found guilty of a misdemeanor reckless endangerment charge, the lowest it faced. A fine will be determined at the sentencing.
Prosecutors had accused Alvo, Salvatore DePaola and Jeffrey Melofchik, as well as the Galt. Corp., of creating a perfect storm for firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino Jr.
The firefighters died Aug. 18, 2007 in the fiery inferno at 130 Liberty St., after workers cut off the standpipe that supplied emergency water to the building.
Alvo's lawyer Susan Hoffinger said Wednesday, "We're very grateful to Judge Uviller and the jury for rendering this just verdict. Thank God this nightmare is over, now he has a chance to put his life back together."
DePaola, 56, the foreman for the demolition subcontractor John Galt Corp. and Melofchik, 49, the safety manager for the general contractor Bovis Lend Lease were acquitted by a jury last month.
Galt's lawyer said the company may appeal the verdict, which he said carries up to a $5,000 fine, adding that the firm is no longer in business.
"I don't see how the company can be found liable when the employees were not guilty," said David Wikstrom, "No one in that room was ever liable for taking the life of someone else."
"It was just a terrible accident, Wikstrom said.
Joseph Graffagnino Sr., whose son was killed in the fire, called the misdemeanor conviction against Galt, "a slap on the wrist."
"A misdemeanor is not saying much at all," he said. "They were not qualified to do the work. They didn't take any of the precautions necessary for fire safety."
Graffagnino had boycotted the trial because he believed the wrong people were charged.
He said he was "glad the judge and jury saw that these people were being made into scapegoats by the higher ups. The people who actually caused the fire to happen are not being held accountable."
Graffagnino currently has a civil suit pending against the parties he felt should have been charged, including the city, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and Bovis Lend Lease, the general contractor on the project.
He criticized the DA's office for spending years on the Deutsche Bank investigation, investing time and energy in a 10-week trial, "and [they've] got basically nothing to show for it [except] a waste of taxpayers' time and money."
The indictments in the case were handed down in 2008, under the previous DA, Robert Morgenthau. Cy Vance Jr. took office in 2010.
He said the DA's office seemed to think that "the public is stupid enough to believe that a few low-level employees concocted the whole thing."
Vance's office released a statement thanking Uviller for her oversight on a "complex and extended case," and said the trial was not for naught.
"For more than three years since the indictment was filed in late 2008, the case has raised consciousness and awareness about fire and building safety. The investigation and resulting agreements contributed to important reforms at city agencies, including the FDNY – changes that have undoubtedly saved lives."
The Uniformed Fire Officers Association said Wednesday they want the DA's office to launch a second round of prosecution against the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which owns the Deutsche Bank site and was responsible for the contractors who dismantled the building.
Esther Regelson, 52, has lived on Washington Street just down the block from the Deutsche Bank building for 27 years, and said she spoke out against the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. hiring John Galt Corp. at public meetings several years ago before the fire.
"It leaves me speechless," she said of the verdict, "I don't know if they went after the wrong guys, or what. The LMDC should have had their feet held to the fire. They were responsible for hiring a company [John Galt] that was unqualified to do the job."
"If these people are really not responsible, someone is," she said. "Nothing surprises me anymore, but I did have hope that someone would be held accountable."
Regelson said she's tired of hearing people refer to the fire as a "perfect storm," because there were clearly people who should have prevented it from happening.
"You can do it right or you can do it cheap and you can do it wrong. They chose cheap and wrong."