BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — A Brooklyn contractor has been charged with manslaughter in the 2015 death of a worker at a Bed-Stuy construction site after investigators found he repeatedly ignored warnings from employees that the structure was in danger of collapsing, according to prosecutors.
Michael Weiss, 47, was arraigned in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Wednesday after a grand jury indicted him on manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and a host of other charges in the death of Fernando Vanegas. The 18-year-old construction worker who died on Sept. 3, 2015 when a wall collapsed at the worksite Weiss was supervising at 656 Myrtle Ave. between Franklin Avenue and Skillman Street, officials said.
Weiss pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on Wednesday afternoon after paying $100,000 bail, records show. He's due back in court on Aug. 9.
The tragedy occurred after Weiss flouted orders from the Department of Buildings and ignored repeated warnings from Vanegas and other workers at the site, who begged Weiss to give them materials to shore up a wall that had developed a crack, according to acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.
“Fernando Vanegaz should be alive today. Construction site deaths such as his are becoming all too common as builders ignore safety protocols and hire untrained workers to maximize profits,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “Even worse, we allege, is that in this case the builder went ahead with this illicit excavation even after the Department of Buildings explicitly prohibited it.”
Fernando Vanegas, 18, was crushed by debris after a wall collapsed at the site.
The property's owner, Chaim Green, hired Weiss in 2015 to replace a one-story fruit store with a five-story, mixed-use residential and commercial building, according to prosecutors. But from the start, Weiss played fast and loose with safety regulations, labor practices, and the permits required to get the job done, Gonzalez said.
Weiss, who did not have the licenses required for the work for which he had been hired, paid $10,000 to an unnamed co-conspirator who was properly licensed, using the other contractor to get the necessary permits from DOB, prosecutors said. The co-conspirator has also been indicted, but the charges are currently sealed, according to a spokesman for the DA's office.
Even with the permits, Weiss flouted the limits of what DOB had authorized for the site. In July, 2015, Weiss ordered his employees excavate a portion of the site that had not been approved, and continued to ignore pleas from his workers who told him that the remaining walls were unstable, including a rear masonry wall that had developed a visible crack, according to Gonzalez.
On Sept. 2, the day before the collapse, his untrained workers continued to excavate more than six feet below the foundation of the building adjacent to the rear of the lot, despite urgently warning their boss about a crack that had formed in a wall there. Lumber arrived at the site that day, but Weiss refused to let the crew shore up the unstable wall, telling them to wait for more materials set to arrive the next day, according to prosecutors.
Ignoring the warnings, Weiss steamed ahead with the project, berating the crew for working too slowly, and he added three more workers to the excavation detail beneath the unstable wall, including Vanegas, Gonzalez said.
The next day, at about 11:30 a.m., the rear masonry wall collapsed, showering debris onto the crew working in the excavation pit, smashing Vanegas in the head and breaking his legs, prosecutors said. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
A second worker suffered a fractured vertebrae, a broken hip and a spinal injury, leaving him so badly injured that even after multiple surgeries he continues to have trouble walking, Gonzalez said.
The debris crushed the face and scalp of a third worker, leaving him with a fractured vertebrae in his lower back and broken ribs, injuries that required back surgery and cause constant back pain nearly two years after the incident, according to prosecutors.
Weiss and his companies, RSBY NY Builders Inc. and Park Ave Builders Inc., who were hired by the property owners in 2015, were also charged with reckless endangerment, assault, grand larceny, and a handful of fraud charges related to taxes, falsified business records, and workers compensation, officials said.
Weiss failed to maintain workers’ compensation insurance for his employees, applying for coverage only after the fatal collapse. He also tried to hide $75,000 in income on his taxes, resulting in $7,996 that he stole from the state, according to Gonzalez.
A defense attorney for Weiss did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chaim Green, the owner of the property, did not respond to a request for comment.