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5 charged with manslaughter in death of worker during construction of wind farm

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 Skookumchuck Wind Farm from Big Hanaford Road in Centralia. Jared Wenzelburger / jwenzelburg

The charges were filed in Lewis County Superior Court on Aug. 9 – 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 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 1-1/2 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. However, Stringer was killed.

His body was recovered the next day.

According to interviews with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, about 25 employees took turns trying to dig out Jonathan Stringer, who was buried during a pair of trench collapses at the Skookumchuck Wind Farm on Jan. 9, 2020. Courtesy of Thurston County Sheriff’s Office

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.

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.

The Washington state Department of Labor & 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.”

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, L&I 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 L&I, 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 L&I that they “were aware that nobody was supposed to enter a trench greater than 4 feet.” They both also reportedly acknowledged that Stringer “had only been employed at the company for a few months,” according to court documents.

In February, a King County judge approved a settlement between Stringer’s estate, RES Americas and Weyerhaeuser Company totaling $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 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.