Three of the five codefendants charged with manslaughter for their alleged involvement in the death of a Chehalis man who died in January 2020 when a trench collapsed during construction of the Skookumchuck Wind Farm have filed motions asking Lewis County Superior Court to dismiss all charges against them.
The codefendants — site manager Kurt Schwarting, 46, of Bakersfield, California; site foreman Matt Buckles, 43, of Edmond, Oklahoma; and worker Paul S. Csizsmar, 25, of Brantingham, New York — argue that the charges against them are misplaced because another codefendant, Kenneth P. DeShazer, 51, of Los Angeles, California, was solely responsible for the death of 24-year-old Jonathan F. Stringer on Jan. 9, 2020.
Schwarting and Buckles have each been charged with second-degree manslaughter and Csizsmar has been charged with first-degree manslaughter for their alleged involvement in the circumstances that led to Stringer’s death.
They argue DeShazer “violated company policy and the explicit instructions of his supervisors” when he entered the trench that ultimately collapsed and killed Stringer, who had jumped in after DeShazer to try and rescue him, according to court documents.
DeShazer has also been charged with first-degree manslaughter.
Stringer and the five codefendants had been working at the site of the Skookumchuck Wind Farm Project, an alternative energy development located on approximately 19,500 acres of land in Lewis and Thurston counties. Stringer, Csizsmar and DeShazer were on a three-person team tasked with installing cabling between the turbines and substations, according to court documents.
The power lines connecting the 38 turbines on the site were placed in trenches dug along logging roads throughout the project property. Company safety regulations allowed workers to enter trenches that were 4-feet deep or shallower — but prohibited anyone from entering trenches deeper than 4-feet.
“My crew knows — it’s beat into their head not to get in the ditch if it’s over 4 feet,” said Buckles, the site foreman, in an interview with Washington state Labor & Industries (L&I) that was quoted in the motion for dismissal.
Most of the trenches fell within that 4-foot threshold for workers to enter, but the trench that ultimately collapsed and killed Stringer was 15 feet deep at its deepest point, as it was designed for the workers to install a conduit to run cable under a culvert that ran under a road, according to court documents.
Crews were supposed to use the bucket of an excavator to push the conduit under the culvert, according to an L&I interview with Buckles, who described the job as a routine operation.
But when the pipe became stuck in the dirt, DeShazer allegedly jumped into the trench at a point where it was 12 feet deep — violating the company’s safety regulations.
Csizsmar, who was with DeShazer and Stringer when DeShazer entered the ditch, reportedly told the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office “they were discussing the best way to get the sleeve slid underneath the culvert” when “Mr. DeShazer took it upon himself to climb into the trench,” according to court documents.
When asked during an L&I interview whether DeShazer said anything before entering the trench or either Csizsmar or Stringer said anything to him before he jumped in, Csizsmar said “No. There wasn’t a lot of time there. It was — all happened pretty fast.”
While DeShazer was still in the trench, the trench collapsed and partially buried DeShazer in about 1-and-a-half feet of dirt.
Stringer then jumped in to try and free DeShazer.
“I told John (Stringer) to get out of the trench, and he said ‘No,’” said DeShazer in an interview that was quoted in the court documents. “He goes, ‘I’m not letting you’ — he goes ‘If you’re going, I’m going,’ and then he goes ‘I’m going to save you.’ That’s his exact words … that’s when it caved in on top of him,” said DeShazer.
Stringer, DeShazer and Csizsmar were all buried “in varying depths of soil,” according to court documents.
Csizsmar was able to free himself and call for help and DeShazer was “sustained by a pocket of air and survived the trench collapse,” according to court documents, but Stringer was killed.
His body was recovered the next day.
An autopsy confirmed that Stringer died “of asphyxiation due to chest compression caused by the weight of soil on top of him from the trench collapse,” according to court documents.
“This was a preventable tragedy that would not have occurred but for Mr. DeShazer violating company policy, contravening his own training and experience, and disregarding the directions of his supervisors,” said attorney Cooper Offenbecher, who is representing Schwarting, in a motion to dismiss all charges against his client.
The motion was filed in Lewis County Superior Court on Dec. 9 alongside motions from Buckles and Csizsmar that referred back to Offenbecher’s argument.
The fifth co-defendant in the case, site supervisor Joel A. Thome, 32, of West Lowville, New York, who has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, had not filed a request for dismissal as of Friday afternoon.
DeShazer had also not filed a dismissal request.
“The tragedy was caused by Mr. DeShazer and he knows it,” said Offenbecher, referencing an L&I interview where DeShazer reportedly admitted he knew he wasn’t supposed to get in the trench on Jan. 9.
The requests for dismissal are formally called “Knapstad motions,” in reference to a 1986 case where a man was charged for possession of marijuana without sufficient evidence against him. The case resulted in a verdict allowing future defendants to move to dismiss a criminal charge on the grounds that there are no disputed material facts supporting the charging and that the undisputed facts don’t establish face-value guilt.
Offenbecher argues that Schwarting, who was in his office working on a financial report when the trench collapsed and said that neither he, Buckles or Thome had been told DeShazer had decided to enter the trench.
Buckles was at “a different onsite location working with other members of the team under his supervision” at the time of the trench collapse, according to court documents, but “he was available to all members of his team by hand-held radio and/or cell phone should they need to contact him,” said his attorney, Zachary Wagnild.
The company policy in place prohibiting workers from entering a trench deeper than 4-feet and the fact that Schwarting and Buckles didn’t know workers had violated that policy frees the supervisors from criminal liability, Offenbecher and Wagnild argued.
Csizsmar’s attorney, Shane O’Rourke, argued that Csizsmar “did not engage in any act that caused the trench to collapse; and there were no discussions or plans for Kenneth DeShazer to jump into the trench, which caused the collapse and/or compelled (Stringer) to enter after the collapse.”
A Lewis County Superior Court judge will address the motions in court on Jan. 19. An omnibus hearing, where the court checks in on the case before trial, is also scheduled for the same date.
All codefendants are scheduled to go to trial the week of March 14, 2022.