3 men plead not guilty in asbestos case

Three former Firm Build executives pleaded not guilty in Merced County Superior Court on Monday to allegations of exposing high school students to asbestos.

Rudy Buendia III, 47, Patrick Bowman, 43, and Joseph Cuellar, 70, each are being charged with five felony counts of child endangerment and five counts of knowingly exposing someone to harmful materials.

Nearly half the courtroom was packed with family members and other supporters of the three men during Monday's arraignment hearing.

The men turned themselves in to law enforcement last week after prosecutors with the Merced County district attorney's office accused them of cutting corners by using teenagers in the removal of asbestos from the Automotive Training Center at Castle Commerce Center.

Several letters were submitted Monday to Judge Donald J. Proietti in support of Buendia, including a letter from Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo.

Bowman's attorney, Ralph Temple, said that even though some problems with asbestos were identified in the building, the proper precautions were taken against exposure to it.

The work at the Automotive Training Center was conducted under the direction of Firm Build between September 2005 and March 2006, prosecutors said.

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