By Shayna Jacobs and Simone Sebastian
MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — A crane rigger charged with killing seven people in a 2008 collapse was found not guilty on all 20 counts Thursday by a Manhattan judge after an emotional month-long trial.
Rigging boss William Rapetti's company was responsible for the 400-foot crane at a 303 East 51st St. site that buckled and fell into a Turtle Bay townhouse during mid-day construction on March 15, 2008. He faced manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges.
As the judge repeated "not guilty" for each count, Rapetti bowed his head and sobbed, as more than a dozen family members and friends.
He embraced his legal team as the judge finished reading the verdict without much further comment.
"This matter is closed," said Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Roger Hayes.
"I can't say we're happy. We're relieved," said Rapetti's lawyer, Arthur Aidala. He said his clients and the dead workers were "best friends. They were at each others' weddings. They were at each others' holidays. They were at each others' daughters' birthday parties."
Rapetti, 49, plans to visit the graves of his fallen friends and co-workers on Friday, Aidala said.
The slain crane workers were Wayne Bleidner, 51; Clifford Canzona, 45; Brad Cohen, 54; Santino Gallone, 37; Anthony Mazza, 39; and Aaron Stephens, 45. The seventh victim was tourist Odin Torres, 28, of Hialeah, Fla., who was staying in an apartment that was crushed.
Denise Bleidner, wife of Wayne Bleidner who was killed in the collapse, thought the judge reached a "fair decision" based on the evidence, her lawyer Howard Hershenhorn told DNAinfo.
"There were a number of different failures that led to this calamity," Hershenhorn said. "A lot [of people] are responsible for it."
Denise Bleidner, did, however, file a civil suit against Rapetti. She won the case, he said, but the court has not yet made a decision on the financial award.
Nile Canzona, the 84-year-old mother of crane victim Clifford Canzona, said her son and Rapetti were good friends. She said he worked that day for Rapetti as a favor, to fill in for an employee who couldn't get to work.
"I'm not disappointed at all," Canzona said of the verdict. "There were certain things I'm sure he [Rapetti] did wrong and he would do over."
She said many people dropped the ball in insuring the crane's safety.
"There was nobody set out to kill anybody," she said. "They were just workers and they were very close."
Rapetti was charged with killing seven people, including six members of his own crew, by using faulty high-rise construction equipment that collapsed even after complaints were made to the Department of Buildings about the apparent hazards at the site.
The accident occurred when workers were trying to raise the height of the crane, through a process known as "jumping."
Prosecutors said the deadly calamity that ensued was caused entirely by Rapetti's failure to replace a shoddy $50 polyester sling, meant to fasten the crane to the exterior of the unfinished East 51st Street apartment building they were working on.
Aidala argued during the trial there was no way Rapetti's alleged oversight was the cause of the collapse, saying the Buildings Department and the site's developer permitted the crane to go up even though it was not bolted to the ground.
"People who know cranes knew a crane doesn't come down from one sling snapping," Aidala said. "They're not that fragile."
Rapetti faced up to 15 years in prison if he'd been guilty of manslaughter.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. issued a statement after the ruling saying his office was "extremely disappointed by the court's verdict."
"At this time our thoughts go out to the seven victims’ families, whose lives were devastated by this tragic incident," Vance said.
John Gallego, who lived in the building the crane collapsed into, testified about how he survived the harrowing ordeal and about his houseguest, Torres, who was killed.
Reached by DNAinfo on Thursday Gallego, who now lives with his mother in Queens and walks with a cane, said he was not angry about the not guilty verdict and hoped that someone would eventually admit to wrongdoing in the tragedy.
"I put my faith in New York law," Gallego said. "I hope they could find who was responsible."
Gallego said other players were involved in the incident beyond Rapetti.
"The city was involved. Another company was involved," Gallego said. "If you make a mistake, I want them to take responsibility, admit their responsibility."