July 24, 2014

Ex-Firm Build exec gets prison for exposing Merced County teenagers to asbestos

A former contractor who exposed dozens of Merced County teenagers to asbestos fibers in 2005 and 2006 received a prison sentence Thursday of nearly four years.

A former contractor who exposed dozens of Merced County teenagers to asbestos fibers in 2005 and 2006 received a prison sentence Thursday of three years, eight months.

Rudy Buendia III made no statement in Merced County Superior Court after Judge John Kirihara handed down the prison term, which was part of a plea deal with federal, state and county prosecutors. Buendia likely will serve about two years in prison, officials have said. He’s scheduled to surrender to the U.S. Marshal’s office Aug. 8 to begin his term.

Andrew Bankhead, 25, was one of the more than 60 students exposed to the cancer-causing insulation material without any protection or training while working under the direction of the now-defunct nonprofit contracting company Firm Build. He said the prison terms amounted to “a slap on the wrist.”

“These guys knew what they were doing; giving us cancer and letting us die slowly,” Bankhead told the Sun-Star in a telephone interview. “How would they feel if the tables were turned; if someone gave their kids asbestos and their kids died at the age of say like 27?”

Buendia, 51, and the two other former Firm Build managers, Patrick Bowman, 47, and Joseph Cuellar, 74, pleaded no contest last year to recklessly disposing of hazardous materials and illegally diverting construction funds, both felonies.

Prosecutors believe the defendants used students to remove asbestos during a renovation project at Castle Commerce Center’s Automotive Training Center from September 2005 to March 2006. Authorities said the defendants knew there was asbestos in the building, but set the teenagers to work without protective clothing, in violation of environmental laws.

District Attorney Larry D. Morse II said Bankhead’s anger over the sentence was “completely understandable.”

“For the people exposed to asbestos, they have a life sentence of their own, worrying constantly for the rest of their lives every time they get sick or have a bloody nose that it could be the onset of something cancer-related,” Morse said. “For what the charges were in the case, the sentence is consistent with what others receive in similar cases.”

Buendia’s attorney, Kirk McAllister, said “mistakes were made with Firm Build and Rudy Buendia is man enough to answer these mistakes.”

The Merced County Office of Education hired Firm Build to provide students job training. An investigator with the Environmental Protection Agency said about 68 people may have been exposed to asbestos.

Bankhead said he used a flat-head screwdriver and a hammer to break up floor tiles, light fixtures and pipes and helped take down a wall at the job site. He said he was never given any breathing masks, hardhats or gloves.

“I remember it was really, really dusty, but I didn’t think nothing of it at the time,” Bankhead said. “I figured if the school is sending us, everything must be fine. If I’d known or my parents had known, they’d have never let me do it. I’d have never gone to do it.”

For the potentially life-threatening work, Bankhead – who was 17 at the time – received a few extra credits toward graduating from Yosemite High School. “We were just trying to graduate high school and it could cost us our lives,” Bankhead said.

Bankhead is now married with two boys, ages 7 and 4, and a 2-year-old girl. He told the judge he fears his life may be cut short. “I want to see (my children) grow up; I want a full life,” Bankhead said.

The asbestos case against Firm Build came to light in 2007 during a criminal probe into the company’s financial activities.

Authorities said executives illegally diverted construction funds in numerous unrelated projects, costing customers thousands. Two victims told the court that Firm Build took their money, used it to pay off other projects and did not pay the people who worked on their homes.

Morse praised the case work of Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall, investigators Anna Hazel and Wayne Hutton and Deputy Attorney General Bret Morris. “They’ve all done a phenomenal job in a case that has consumed many years,” Morse said. “The credit is entirely theirs.”

Last month, prosecutors considered withdrawing the plea agreement after Buendia allegedly said he was innocent despite a no contest plea entered in Merced County Superior Court last year. After further talks between attorneys, however, prosecutors decided to move forward with the plea deal.

Bowman began his two-year prison term last month.

Cuellar’s case is pending because his attorney plans to withdraw his client’s no contest pleas in both the state and federal case. Cuellar is due back in federal court Aug. 4 and in state court Sept. 22, according to records.

More than two dozen asbestos victims have sued the Merced County Office of Education, Firm Build and others in connection with their exposure. Additional plaintiffs could be added to the growing list of former high school students seeking damages against the company and the school district, attorney Lewis Van Blois said.

A hearing in the civil case is scheduled Aug. 13.

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