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3 Charged in 2 Separate Job Site Deaths : 1 Worker Died in Cave-in, Other Was Killed by Falling Brick Wall

July 22, 1987|TERRY PRISTIN | Times Staff Writer

Three men were charged Tuesday with felony involuntary manslaughter in connection with two deaths stemming from separate workplace accidents during the last year.

Only one previous felony case had been brought by the Los Angeles County district attorney's occupational safety and health section since it was established in 1985.

In the current cases, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said, through "the gross negligence of the employer, done for reasons of trying to save time and money, employees were exposed to the risk that they could be--and in fact, in each of these cases were--killed."

One of the cases stems from the death of Gilberto Torres, 30, who was buried alive last July 24 after a trench collapsed while he was working on a sewer connection in Rolling Hills on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Shoring Equipment

Reiner said Torres' supervisor, Jeffry Alan Gonterman, 34, of Lakewood, was charged because he knew that the trench was unstable and that the shoring equipment belonging to the company, Atlas Cesspools of Torrance, was "useless."

Gonterman, who is scheduled to be arraigned Friday in Torrance Municipal Court, could not be reached for comment. An employee at Atlas Cesspools said company officials would have no comment.

The second case arises from an accident on Feb. 15, when an unreinforced brick wall at 8514 S. Vermont Ave. collapsed on top of two workers, killing Hilario Chavez, 31, and seriously injuring his brother, Anacleto, 43.

Charged in the death were James Chung Lee, 50, the building's owner, and Charlie Wilson, 53, who was hired by Lee to have the bricks removed as part of a remodeling project, Reiner said.

Both men ignored repeated warnings that the site was unsafe, and they hired day laborers off the street to do the job, instead of paying a contractor $8,000 to clear the site properly, according to the district attorney.

In addition to manslaughter, Gonterman was charged with three misdemeanor counts of violating the state Labor Code. Lee, a Glendale resident, and Wilson, of Los Angeles, were each charged with eight such misdemeanor counts.

Reiner used the announcement of the charges to again criticize Gov. George Deukmejian's decision to dismantle Cal/OSHA.

Decision's Effect

As a result of that decision, Reiner said, his office will no longer be able to prosecute employers for any work site crimes except manslaughter. Prosecutions for workplace crimes falling short of manslaughter will be left to a more lenient U.S. Justice Department, he said.

During the 16-year existence of the federal OSHA, only 14 criminal cases have been filed nationwide, Reiner said, with only two of those cases brought during the Reagan Administration.

John Russell, a spokesman for the Justice Department, was unable to confirm Reiner's figures.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's occupational safety and health section has filed a total of 15 cases, a spokesman said. In the previous felony case, Michael Maggio, president of a West Covina drilling firm, was charged in the 1985 death of an employee in an elevator shaft hole at a downtown Los Angeles construction site.

Maggio pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 45 days in jail.

Although he acknowledged that he still could have filed felony charges in the current cases without Cal/OSHA, Reiner said, "most of the (workplace) cases that occur are not manslaughter."

If convicted on all counts, Gonterman faces up to four years in state prison and Lee and Wilson could get up to five years.

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