Five people are facing manslaughter charges for the death of a Chehalis man who died in January 2020 when a trench that had not been reinforced collapsed during construction of the Skookumchuck Wind Farm along the border of Lewis and Thurston counties.
The charges were filed in Lewis County Superior Court on Aug. 9, 2021 — 20 months after the death of 24-year-old Jonathan F. Stringer, who left behind a young daughter and a fiancée.
Three of the co-defendants — site foreman Matt Buckels, 43, of Edmond, Oklahoma; site manager Kurt Schwarting, 46, of Bakersfield, California; and site supervisor Joel A. Thome, 32, of West Lowville, New York — have been charged with second-degree manslaughter under accusations of criminal negligence.
The remaining two codefendants — Paul S. Csizsmar, 25, of Brantingham, New York, and Kenneth P. DeShazer, 51, of Los Angeles, California — have each been charged with first-degree manslaughter under accusations that they “did recklessly cause the death” of Stringer, according to court documents.
Stringer and the five codefendants had been at site of the Skookumchuck Wind Farm Project in Lewis County digging a trench to install a conduit under a culvert on Jan. 9, 2020. During the installation process, the conduit became jammed, and DeShazer entered the trench to set up rigging that would allow them to pull the conduit under the culvert using the excavator.
Due to poor weather and poor soil conditions, the trench walls collapsed on DeShazer while he was inside, burying him in an estimated 1-and-a-half feet of dirt. Csizsmar and Stringer then jumped into the trench to free DeShazer — but there was a secondary collapse, and all three men were 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.
Buckles, Thome, Csizmar and DeShazer each entered not guilty pleas to their respective charges in Lewis County Superior Court on Tuesday. Schwarting is expected to enter a not guilty plea during his hearing on Wednesday.
The codefendants waived their rights to a speedy trial. A jury trial was scheduled for the week of March 14, 2022.
“That’s just given the nature of this case. As I’m sure the court can see, it’s going to be a very big one,” said defense attorney Shane O’Rourke, who is representing Csizsmar.
An omnibus hearing to confirm that all parties are on-track to be ready for trial was scheduled for Dec. 9 and a trial confirmation hearing was scheduled for March 10.
Judge J. Andrew Toynbee set bail at $50,000 unsecured for the four codefendants who appeared in court for their hearings on Aug. 31, meaning that they can remain out of custody and do not have to pay any of the bail amount unless they miss a court hearing.
Toynbee also gave them permission to travel in all 50 states, but the codefendants each signed waivers allowing them to be returned to Washington if they break their conditions of release, and Toynbee requested that each of them appear via video to their omnibus hearings.
“It’s an unusual case and the distance that the parties are traveling is the primary reason why I want the parties to appear via WebEx,” Toynbee said.
Lewis County Superior Court is expected to set the same bail and release conditions for Schwarting.
The Washington state Department of Labor and Industries approached the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office in early 2020 with the results of their preliminary investigation about the possibility of pursuing criminal charges. It was around that time when Stringer’s estate was negotiating a large settlement against three of the companies involved with the project.
The prosecutor’s office responded with a list of questions it would need answered to pursue the case, and the investigation continued from there.
“As you can imagine, a case like this just has thousands of pages of discovery,” said Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer. “We came up with an idea of what appropriate charges would be.”
Ashlee Thompson, Stringer’s fiance who was present in the courtroom during preliminary and arraignment hearings Tuesday, declined to comment on the cases. The prosecutor’s office notified Thompson and her family prior to charges being filed.
Labor and Industries’ investigation ultimately concluded that Stringer’s death was preventable and that multiple workplace violations played a role in his death.
In July of last year, the state Department of Labor and Industries issued nearly $550,000 in fines to three companies that were on site during the collapse.
Roughly $545,000 of those fines were issued to RES-Americas System 3 LLC, the main site contractor which was cited for eight workplace violations, and parent company RES Americas Construction Inc., which was cited for six violations.
State regulations require trenches deeper than 4 feet to be reinforced and prohibit workers from entering unreinforced trenches without safety precautions in place to prevent the tunnels from collapsing. During interviews with Labor and Industries, Buckles, Schwarting and Thowe allegedly acknowledged that they were aware of the state’s regulations and that the tunnel that ultimately collapsed and killed Stringer was not reinforced, and allegedly admitted “it was common for workers to enter trenches to perform various tasks for the project,” according to court documents.
DeShazer and Csizsmar both reportedly told Labor and Industries that, as longtime employees of the company, they “were aware that nobody was supposed to enter a trench greater than 4 feet in depth without some type of safety measure taken to prevent the trench walls from collapsing” and both allegedly “acknowledged that was not done in this instance.” They both also reportedly acknowledged that Stringer “had only been employed at the company for a few months,” according to court documents.
A Labor and Industries spokesperson was unable to confirm by press deadline if citations against RES had been appealed in the State of Washington Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. RES Americas previously told The Chronicle it planned to appeal.
In February, a King County judge approved a settlement between Stringer’s estate, RES Americas and Weyerhaeuser Company totalling $12 million. Weyerhaeuser was named in the family’s lawsuit because the incident took place on land owned by the company. It was believed to be, at the time, “one of the largest payments for the wrongful death of a single individual” in state history, according to court documents.
The 38-turbine, 136-megawatt capacity Skookumchuck Wind Farm, located on the Thurston-Lewis county border, went live and started producing power last November. Atlanta-based Southern Power owns a 51% stake in the wind project and TransAlta owns 49%. The project supplies energy through Puget Sound Energy’s Green Direct program and is one of the largest projects of its kind in Western Washington.