No major criminal charges expected in fatal Clearwater garage collapse, official says

CLEARWATER — No major criminal charges are expected following the stairwell collapse that killed a 23-year-old welder in December, Pinellas County’s lead prosecutor said Monday.

Pinellas-Pasco State’s Attorney Bruce Bartlett said his office received the Clearwater Police Department’s investigation into the cave-in that killed Mitchel Klock and no major charges are expected.

However, Bartlett said prosecutors are considering filing an unlicensed misdemeanor contractor charge against one of the companies involved.

According to a Clearwater police report released Monday along with other documents, the company that hired Klock as a subcontractor, Forgue General Contracting of Lakeland, to perform repairs to the structure was not licensed in the county of Pinellas at the time of the collapse. The company was duly licensed by the state, the report said.

A message left with Forgue General Contracting was not returned on Monday.

Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter said the general contractor at work should have taken extra safety measures, such as better directing Klock on what the job required and shoring up the stairs while the work was in progress. In progress. But Slaughter said the case did not rise to the level of a crime such as culpable negligent manslaughter, which the law defines in part as “a reckless disregard for human life”.

“We obviously see some very reckless acts that we think could have been avoided, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they elevate by the legal standard to reckless,” Slaughter said.

Records released Monday do not indicate the cause of the collapse, which is being investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A message left Monday with OSHA officials was not returned.

But the records shed more light on what Klock was doing when the garage stairwell at 26750 US 19 fell on him.

Meanwhile, Klock’s widow, Alexis, his estate’s representative, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Plymouth Plaza and the property company that runs it, claiming the structure is in a “dangerous and unsafe condition”. when Klock showed up to work there. .

The day after the collapse, the Tampa Bay Weather reported how city records revealed stairwell repairs began before a work request was submitted and months after the city of Clearwater determined the garage was potentially unsafe, requiring an inspection by a structural engineer.

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The building’s owner, Plymouth Plaza LLC, failed to submit the required engineering report before repairs began, records show.

Additionally, a former maintenance engineer who worked for the previous owner told the Times that he had been raising concerns for years about the deterioration of the building as a result of water damage. Engineer Michael Brookhart left the company in 2016 but said he called a Clearwater building official in July to reiterate his concerns after a condominium tower in Surfside fatally collapsed.

According to the police report released on Monday, a Plymouth official told investigators the report was obtained before work began and indicated there were “no current life safety concerns”.

Zev Freidus, listed as a registered agent for Plymouth LLC, declined to comment for this story.

The police investigation report notes that Jason Cantrell, a certified city building inspector, received Brookhart’s complaint about the building on July 15 and conducted an inspection that day. Cantrell was ordered by his superiors to issue an unsafe construction notice on July 19 “due to signs of deterioration” in various parts of the garage. The notice gave Plymouth Plaza LLC 20 days to complete the work.

Cantrell emailed Plymouth Plaza co-owner Elliot Katz on July 28, telling him he could ignore the compliance date on the notice and would not go ahead with the notice. application at that time.

At the time, Clearwater building officials did not believe that the issues with the structure rose to the level of concern that would require the garage to be closed to the public, and the building owners appeared to be making a good faith effort to resolve the issues. problems, Gina Clayton, the city’s director of planning and development, said Monday.

On October 12, Cantrell sent a follow-up email to Katz to see how things were going with the garage. Katz responded the same day saying he had found a contractor and was working on getting the engineering report.

Katz later told officials he paid to hire the structural engineer, Dansco Engineering, LLC. Katz said Dansco’s company report “indicated that there are currently no life safety issues.”

After receiving the report, Katz hired Forgue General Contracting to resolve the issues. Katz did not submit the engineering report to the city or apply for a permit for the work as required, city officials said.

Forgue General Contracting hired Klock, which had the services of Mr. Klock Welding, to carry out repairs to the stairwells in the parking lot, records show.

Demorris Matthews, an employee and friend of Klock, told police that just before the collapse, they were removing and replacing rusting brackets that secure the stairs to the parking lot landing. They started from the top floor and went down.

Matthews said Klock was in the main floor stairwell cutting the last of four brackets that needed to be replaced and Matthews was grinding and cleaning the area where the brackets had been cut.

Then the stairwell suddenly collapsed, Matthews said. He called Klock but heard no response.

“We believe, based on the work done on (the) metal supports, that this contributed to it,” Slaughter said. “And we don’t think Mitchel would have been responsible for having to know the impact of those parentheses.”

The city eventually obtained Dansco’s engineering report, dated October 19, and provided a copy to the Times Monday. He cited ‘many structural issues which are of great concern’, including ‘severe oxidation noted at metal angles and recesses supporting stair landings’.

At the time, none of the issues “appear to have reached the level of life-safety, but without supervision it can easily reach that level,” the report said. One of the report’s eight recommendations was to clean and coat the oxidized metal components of the structure.

“You should get planning permission before you start doing structural work,” Clayton said. “If you are in this situation and have completed the required engineering that we asked you to do, submit it and we can determine how to move forward.”

Crews had to demolish the stairwell to retrieve Klock’s body two days later. An autopsy report shows that Klock suffered multiple blunt injuries and his cause of death was blunt trauma.

Alexis Klock has retained South Florida firm Grossman Roth Yaffa Cohen, which has represented clients in major fatal collapse cases, including last year’s Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside and the 2018 collapse of the Florida International University pedestrian bridge.

The lawsuit filed in February claims that “the concrete, structural integrity, precast elements and other base materials, particularly around the stairwells, were in an unsafe and vulnerable condition and required corrective action to prevent ‘a catastrophic event does not occur’.

Plymouth and Friedus’ management company, ZFC Real Estate, “deliberately concealed, withheld and misrepresented the danger presented by the dilapidated and unsafe garage, which prevented Mitchel Klock from exercising informed judgment on whether to perform work on the garage,” the complaint states.

“The moral of the story is that you can’t have places that are so structurally flawed that people get killed just by driving there or living there or showing up for work,” attorney Stuart Grossman said.

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