Entries in Philadelphia (48)


Excavator Surrenders in Philadelphia Building Collapse

WPVI/ABC News(PHILADELPHIA) -- A excavator operator turned himself in on Saturday to face manslaughter and other charges in the collapse of a Philadelphia building that killed six people, police said.

Sean Benschop, 42, of Philadelphia, is going to be charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person, one count of risking a catastrophe, Philadelphia Police Department Officer Jillian Russell said.

Marijuana was found in Benschop's system after the collapse, according to police sources.

The operator also admitted to taking codeine and other prescription drugs before the accident, and he was outfitted with a soft cast up to his elbow while working the heavy machinery, police sources told ABC News station WPVI-TV in Philadelphia. A source later confirmed the details to ABC News.

"Sean Benschop finally turned himself in to authorities today," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said. "It is because of his reckless and irresponsible behavior that six people died and 13 people were hurt and buried under debris and bricks.

"Our hearts are still hurting over the loss of those six good people, working or shopping at the Salvation Army Thrift Store, trying to 'do good,'" he said. "We continue to pray for the physical and mental recovery of the 13 survivors.

"It is my hope that the harshest level of charges are brought against Sean Benschop and he is punished accordingly," he said.

Nutter said investigators would also be looking whether the owners of the building shared any responsibility in the collapse.

"We must also seek answers from property owners Richard Basciano and Griffin T. Campbell who hired Benschop to do the significant job of operating heavy equipment," he said. "These three individuals bear the ultimate and sole responsibility for this tragedy. Justice will only be served if Sean Benschop receives a sentence that buries him in a jailhouse forever, just like his victims were buried on Wednesday."

Benschop declined to answer questions when a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer contacted him by cell phone Friday.

Citing court records, the Inquirer reported Benschop has been arrested 10 times for a range of offenses, including drug charges, theft, firearms and assault.

In addition to those killed, 14 more were injured when the vacant building collapsed on a Salvation Army Thrift Store Wednesday morning.

Rescue workers used buckets and their bare hands to move bricks and rubble to free a 61-year-old woman late Wednesday night, but that was the sole piece of good news to come from the pile of rubble where a four-story building used to stand in Philadelphia's Center City.

The 30-hour search-and-rescue operation for additional victims ended Thursday. At that time, Mayor Michael Nutter told ABC News that officials were confident there were no more people buried.

Those killed were identified as Kimberly Finnegan, Borbor Davis, Anne Bryan, Juanita Harmin, Mary Simpson and Roseline Conteh.

The building was being torn down as part of a community redevelopment project. The thrift store was open throughout the demolition.

Two of those killed were Salvation Army employees.

"We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life of the six individuals who perished in the wake of yesterday's building collapse," the organization said in a statement. "The passing of these individuals, including two of our employees, will be felt across our entire organization and throughout the community."

Philadelphia officials were facing tough questions over whether the accident could have been prevented.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and the city's commissioner of licenses and inspections, Carlton Williams, have conceded that complaints about the working conditions at the demolition site were not followed up on.

City officials said that a routine inspection had found no violations at the property before demolition began. Williams said that inspectors had visited an adjoining property in May after complaints were lodged, but they found no violations and did not return to the Market Street site before Wednesday.

"No subsequent inspection occurred to indicate there was any unsafe conditions," Williams said. "We did not follow up and we are definitely looking into that."

Nutter promised a "wide-ranging investigation" into how and why the building collapsed.

In the wake of the collapse, Nutter has announced that every active demolition site in Philadelphia was being inspected for safety. He also announced a series of new rules for demolishing buildings within his city, including requiring a prohibition on using demolition machinery on a building if it is next to an occupied structure and mandatory drug tests and background checks for those operating heavy equipment on demolition sites.

At least 20 people were caught in falling debris when the building collapsed Wednesday around 10:45 a.m. An outer wall of the building that was being demolished fell outward and onto the two-story thrift store, according to city officials.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Equipment Operator in Philadelphia Building Collapse Turns Self In

WPVI/ABC News(PHILADELPHIA) -- A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Sean Benschop, the heavy equipment operator responsible for the collapse of a Philadelphia building that killed six people on Wednesday.

Benschop is charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of reckless endangerment and one count of risking a catastrophe after marijuana was found in his system. The operator has also admitted to taking codeine and other prescription drugs before the accident, and he was outfitted with a soft cast up to his elbow while working the heavy machinery.

Citing court records, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Benschop has been arrested 10 times for a range of offenses, including drug charges, theft, firearms and assault.

Authorities say Benschop turned himself in to police.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


$75,000 Reward Offered in Philadelphia School Kidnapping

(PHILADELPHIA, Pa.) -- After a 5-year-old girl was kidnapped from a Philadelphia school and assaulted earlier this week, community leaders banded together to offer a $75,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of those responsible.

According to police, the child was taken from her school Monday morning by a woman wearing Muslim garb and calling herself either "Tiffany" or "Rashida."

The girl was then taken to a house in the area where she was blindfolded and assaulted. The child was discovered early the next morning, when a passerby named Nelson Mandela Myers discovered her crying on a playground wearing only a t-shirt.

"She said she was cold and that somebody was chasing her and she ran," Myers told ABC station WPVI-TV in Philadelphia.

The child was admitted and then released from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia after she was found.

In a joint press conference Friday, community leaders and law enforcement officials aimed to draw attention to the case by offering a $75,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible.

The largest single contribution came from the office of State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, who raised $30,000 for the reward.

"I will work night and day from now until the time this person's condemned to hell," Williams said.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's office donated $10,000 to the reward.

"It's gutless, it's heartless, it's inhumane. We will find you, we'll do whatever it takes," Nutter said of the perpetrators.

The U.S. Marshals and the FBI have already started to aid the Philadelphia police with their investigation.

Officials are looking for both the woman who took the child from school and a male suspect who was at the house where the child was taken. Officials say they believe the girl was taken only a few blocks from the school and officers joined by police cadets have been canvassing the area. However, no suspects have been named.

"That neighborhood should not, cannot return to normal, until someone and we know someone out there knows who perpetrated this crime," said Capt. John Darby, Philadelphia Police Special Victims Unit.

Additionally the security lapses that allowed the girl to leave her school with a stranger will be investigated, according to the Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite.

"We are going to deal with the individuals responsible for this breach," Hite told WPVI-TV. "There were procedural breakdowns in this school."

The substitute teacher who let the girl leave with the unidentified woman, and a non-teaching assistant who worked at the security desk have both been put on leave.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Alleged Philly Doctor Killer Had Anger Issues, Family Friend Says

Comstock/Thinkstock(PHILADELPHIA) -- Jason Smith, the Philadelphia exterminator who police say showed up at the home of Dr. Melissa Ketunuti this week to solve her rodent problem before strangling her, was a problem child as an adolescent, a family friend told ABC News.

The family friend from many years ago, who asked for anonymity, said Smith, 36, had behavior and anger issues, and that he also liked to set things on fire.

After Smith and Ketunuti got into "some kind of argument" in Ketunuti's basement, he struck her, strangled her and set her on fire, according to police.

Smith reportedly admitted to the brutal slaying after hours of police questioning Wednesday night.  Smith told police that Ketunuti had "belittled" him, sources told ABC News affiliate WPVI-TV in Philadelphia.

He snapped and apparently tried to hide any evidence by setting the 35-year-old doctor on fire with paper he lit in the kitchen, the station reported.

Capt. James Clark of the Philadelphia Police Department said Smith's mood and clarity varied during his alleged confession.

"At some points, he was solemn.  At other points, it was like he was in a fog," Clark said at a news conference.

Smith has been charged with murder, arson, abuse of a corpse and risking a catastrophe.

Ori Feibush, who owns a coffee shop near Ketunuti's street, said he and police pored over hours of surveillance video until they saw Ketunuti walking home from doing errands, with Smith steps behind her.

"Forty-five minutes later, we see this same guy walking past, but [he] looks a little more disheveled and he's got gloves on," Feibush told ABC News.

Police say that after the slaying, Smith circled Ketunuti's block twice, before heading off to another job.

Ketunuti was a doctor at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and had lived alone in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood of the city for about three years.  Her family released a statement saying they are "devastated by this senseless act of violence."

"Melissa's friends from childhood, college, residency and elsewhere remember her many kindnesses, even during long hours, as well as her zest for life: traveling, running and spending time with friends and family," the statement said.  "Melissa was a source of joy to everyone in her life.  Her passing has left an enormous gap in our lives."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Philadelphia Exterminator Charged in Doctor's Killing

Comstock/Thinkstock(PHILADELPHIA) -- Philadelphia-area exterminator Joseph Smith was arrested and charged on Thursday in the strangling and burning death of pediatrician Melissa Ketunuti.

Smith, 36, had been sent to Ketunuti's home on a service call, where the two got into "some kind of argument" in Ketunuti's basement on Monday, Capt. James Clark of the Philadelphia police department said Thursday morning.

"At her home they go into argument.  It went terribly wrong.  He struck her, and knocked her down," Clark said.  "Immediately he jumped on top of her, started strangling her.  She passed out, and then he set her body on fire."

The developments came after investigators collected hours of surveillance video and canvassed the neighborhood where police on Monday found Ketunuti's body.  Ketunuti, 35, was a doctor at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

A silver Ford truck was towed from Smith's Levittown home, which was the same truck spotted on surveillance video Monday in Ketunuti's neighborhood, sources told ABC News affiliate WPVI.

Smith was spotted on video getting out of the vehicle and following Ketunuti to her home.  The man left her home after an hour and was seen on video circling her home, sources told WPVI.

Ketunuti's body was found Monday in the basement of her Graduate Hospital-area row house after her dog walker called 911.  Her wrists and ankles were bound behind her back, and she was on fire, police said.

The pediatrician was fully clothed and there were no signs of sexual assault, sources said.

Clark said she was strangled with a rope.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Pediatrician Found Hogtied, Burning in Philadelphia Home

ABC News(PHILADELPHIA) -- Investigators in Philadelphia are trying to unravel a baffling mystery after a hogtied pediatrician was found dead and on fire in the basement of her home.

Police found Melissa Ketunuti, 35, a beloved doctor at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Monday in her Center City basement after her dog walker called 911.  Her wrists and ankles were bound behind her back, and she was on fire, police said.

Investigators said she had been strangled with a belt around her neck.  Strangulation appeared to be the cause of death, police say, but they are awaiting the results of an autopsy.

With no evidence of forced entry, police wonder whether she knew whoever attacked her.

"We don't know if she walked in on individuals inside of her property," Philadelphia police Capt. James Clark said.  "We don't know if it's a known doer or an unknown doer."

There's no clear motive, and nothing appeared to have been stolen.  Police have questioned Ketunuti's boyfriend, but he has not been declared a suspect.

Ketunuti lived alone on a quiet street, and had been there for about three years.

"[She was] super pleasant, really nice," one neighbor said.  "Just super friendly."

Ketunuti's hospital issued a statement Tuesday that she was "a warm, caring, earnest, bright young woman with her whole future ahead of her," adding that she will be deeply missed.

"It's going to be just a horrible thing for her family," a neighbor said.  "She was just a very nice person, very full of life."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Missing Pennsylvania Girl Abducted from School Found

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children(PHILADELPHIA) -- A 5-year-old girl has been found after allegedly being abducted by a stranger from her classroom at a Philadelphia elementary school, where officials didn't learn of her disappearance until six hours later.

Nailla Robinson was found early Tuesday morning by a man in a nearby park in Upper Darby under bleachers and transported to the Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania to be checked for hypothermia.

Police say the little girl told them a stranger took her from the school on Monday.  She said she was blindfolded and walked a couple of blocks to a house.  Robinson said a teenage girl later took her from that house to the playground, according to police.

Robinson was taken from Bryant Elementary School Monday at about 8:50 a.m. by a woman covered with an all black niqab, a piece of cloth that covers the face, according to surveillance video.  The school did not know Robinson was missing until six hours later when the girl's day care arrived to pick her up.

"I don't know if it's an accident or whatever it is, please bring my baby home.  Don't hurt her," Robinson's mother, Latifah Rashid, told ABC News affiliate WPVI-TV on Monday.

Rashid told WPVI that she dropped Robinson off at 8:45 a.m., five minutes before she was taken from the school by another woman.

"[She] told her teacher that she was me, her mother, and that she was taking her out to breakfast and Nailla was already signed out at the office and she took my child and left," Rashid said.

Police say the woman knew Robinson by name and there was a substitute teacher in the classroom, according to WPVI.

"There's a signature in the book you're required anytime you go into the schools," Lt. John Walker of the Philadelphia Police Department said.  "There's a list of people who can pick a child up.  She did sign a name but it's not legible so we are not quite sure who the person is."

The school district released a statement, saying there were some major procedural violations by Bryant Elementary and "an adult is not allowed to go to any classrooms to check children out."

The surveillance video shows the woman leading Robinson through the halls of the school before exiting the premises.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter had offered a $10,000 return for information leading to the girl's safe return.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Houston, Philadelphia Kids Accidently Shoot Themselves at Home

George Doyle/Thinkstock(HOUSTON) -- A 4-year-old boy in Houston accidently shot himself in the head, and a 5-year-old girl in Philadelphia shot herself in the foot after both children got a hold of their parents' guns Tuesday night while playing at home.

The unidentified 4-year-old boy climbed onto a tall furniture chest and found a hidden handgun around 11:40 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Houston Police Department.

The gun accidentally discharged when the child was turning it toward himself, hitting him in the head, police said.

The parents, who were in another room, heard the gunshot and found the child lying on his bed.  He was transported to Memorial Hermann Hospital where authorities said he remains in critical condition.

In Philadelphia, the 5-year-old girl is recovering after she shot herself in the foot with her father's gun around 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Police said the girl's father works in security.  His gun was in a holster when the girl found it and pulled the trigger.

No charges have been filed in either case.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Philadelphia Wedding Brawl: Groom's Brother Maintains Innocence

ABC News(PHILADELPHIA) -- A man accused of assaulting police officers and rioting in last Sunday's wedding brawl at a Philadelphia hotel said he's innocent of the charges.

Matthew Sofka, who'd attended his brother's wedding at a different locale, gave the first insider's account of how two couples' wedding nights ended in chaos. In a video of the brawl, the 26-year-old Sofka -- the son of a former police officer -- is seen receiving repeated hits with a police baton and a Tasering before he was arrested and thrown into jail.

According to Sofka's lawyer, Fortunato Perri Jr., when Sofka arrived at the Sheraton Society Hill hotel from his brother's wedding reception with family and friends, the melee involving a separate wedding party held at the Sheraton Society Hill was already under way.

Perri told ABC News that Sofka's girlfriend was thrown to the ground, and that his client was trying to help her up when he was "approached by police from behind. ...Unaware who was behind him, he extended an arm."

Police said the fight, fueled by alcohol and rising tempers, had taken over the Sheraton's bar and lobby. The entire brawl was captured on video and posted on YouTube by a 15-year-old hotel guest, Max Schultz, who was awakened by the ruckus. The video has gone viral, and has been viewed more than 900,000 times.

Perri said that Sofka, who was released from jail Monday on $25,000 bail, was struck by one officer and put into a choke hold by another.

"Other members of the police department continued to try to subdue him. Ultimately he was [Tasered], I believe a couple of times," Perri said.

According to the criminal complaint, police said the force was justified because Sofka "knowingly, intentionally or recklessly caused/attempted to cause bodily injury" to a police sergeant. The complaint goes on to say that Sofka, and approximately three others, "punched and kicked the sergeant in the head and body."

Wedding guests have fired back at the police response and their use of force to control the massive brawl.

Perri said the fight had nothing to do with the Sofka wedding party, but that the incident had taken the biggest toll on Sofka's new family, as the uncle of 28-year-old Nicole Sannuti, Sofka's new sister-in-law, died that night.

Vincent Sannuti reportedly tried to move his family away from the fight and then collapsed outside the hotel. The 57-year-old later died after reportedly suffering a heart attack.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Groom's Brother Charged with Assault in Philly Wedding Day Brawl

Comstock/Thinkstock(PHILADELPHIA) -- Philadelphia police have charged one man in connection with the wedding brawl at a Society Hill hotel in which the bride's uncle died of a heart attack.

Matthew Sofka, the brother of one of the grooms, was released from jail Monday after he was charged with assaulting a police officer, reckless endangerment and inciting a riot for his alleged role in the fight.  Sofka, 26, was reportedly Tasered by an officer during the early Sunday morning riot between at least two wedding parties at the Sheraton Society Hill.

Vince Sannuti, 57, reportedly died of a heart attack after he left the hotel during the brawl.  Sannuti was found outside the hotel unconscious.  He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died.

Sannuti was the uncle of one of the brides, Nicole Sannuti.  She was seen leaving the hotel in tears while still wearing her wedding dress.

Friends of the Sannuti family told ABC News affiliate WPVI-TV that the wedding reception had been held elsewhere, but guests were staying at the Sheraton Society Hill.  That's where they crossed paths with another wedding party taking place at the hotel earlier on Saturday night.

Police said the fight -- fueled by alcohol and rising tempers -- took over the bar and lobby.

The entire melee was captured on video and posted on YouTube by hotel guest Max Schultz, who was awakened by the ruckus.  The video has gone viral, receiving more than 600,000 views.

In the video, an officer can be seen trying to hold back one of the brides while a man in a tuxedo was thrown to the floor.

Schultz, who was in town celebrating his 15th birthday with his family, can be overhead in the video asking, "Did they just deck the bride?"

Meanwhile, wedding guests have fired back at the police response and their use of force, deploying batons and Tasers, to control the massive brawl.

Sannuti's friend, Kristin Pettito, tweeted on Monday, "@PhillyPolice your actions at Sat night's hotel fight were despicable. Never in my life have I seen such an abuse of power. Shame on you."

The Philadelphia Police Department said such force was necessary to control the crowd because alcohol played a role in the fight.

Schultz's video is now evidence, and police continue to review it to determine if additional people will face charges for their actions.  Two other people were cited for disorderly conduct.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio