No major criminal charges expected in fatal Clearwater garage collapse, official says

Mitchel Klock was replacing steel brackets in the stairwell at 26750 U.S. 19 N. in December when it collapsed on him, records show.
A view of the site where the body of welder Mitchel Klock was recovered on Dec. 22. Klock, 23, was killed when the stairwell of the parking garage in Clearwater he was working in collapsed. No major criminal charges are expected as a result of the collapse, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said Monday.
A view of the site where the body of welder Mitchel Klock was recovered on Dec. 22. Klock, 23, was killed when the stairwell of the parking garage in Clearwater he was working in collapsed. No major criminal charges are expected as a result of the collapse, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said Monday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published April 4, 2022|Updated April 4, 2022

CLEARWATER — No major criminal charges are expected stemming from the stairwell collapse that killed a 23-year-old welder in December, Pinellas County’s top prosecutor said Monday.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said his office has received the Clearwater Police Department’s investigation of the collapse that killed Mitchel Klock and that no major charges are expected.

However, Bartlett said prosecutors are considering whether to file a misdemeanor unlicensed contractor charge against one of the companies involved.

According to a Clearwater police report released Monday along with other records, the company that hired Klock as a subcontractor, Forgue General Contracting of Lakeland, to make repairs on the structure was not licensed in Pinellas County at the time of the collapse. The company was properly licensed with the state, the report shows.

A message left with Forgue General Contracting was not returned Monday.

Clearwater police Chief Daniel Slaughter said the general contractor on the job should have taken some additional safety measures, such as better directing Klock about what the job required and shoring up the staircase while the work was underway. But Slaughter said the case did not rise to the level of a crime such as manslaughter by culpable negligence, which the law defines in part by “a reckless disregard of human life.”

“We do obviously see some very careless acts that we do believe would have been preventable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it rises by the legal standard to reckless,” Slaughter said.

The records released Monday do not indicate a cause of the collapse, which is under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A message left for OSHA officials on Monday was not returned.

But the records do shed more light on what Klock was doing at the time when the stairwell of the garage at 26750 U.S. 19 fell on him.

Meantime, Klock’s widow Alexis, the representative for his estate, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Plymouth Plaza and the real estate company that manages it, claiming the structure was in a “dangerous and hazardous state” when Klock showed up to work on it.

The day after the collapse, the Tampa Bay Times reported how city records revealed that repairs on the stairwell began before an application for the work was submitted and months after the city of Clearwater determined the garage was potentially unsafe, requiring inspection by a structural engineer.

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The building’s owner, Plymouth Plaza LLC, did not submit the required engineering report before the repairs began, records show.

In addition, a former maintenance engineer who worked for the previous owner told the Times that he had raised concerns for years about deterioration of the building from water damage. The engineer, Michael Brookhart, left the company in 2016 but said he called a Clearwater building official in July to repeat his concerns after the deadly collapse of a condominium tower in Surfside.

According to the police report released Monday, a Plymouth official told investigators that the report was obtained before the work began and that it stated there were “no current life safety issues.”

Zev Freidus, listed as a registered agent for Plymouth LLC, declined to comment for this story.

The police investigation report notes that Jason Cantrell, a certified building inspector for the city, received Brookhart’s complaint about the building on July 15 and completed an inspection that day. Cantrell was directed by his superiors to issue an unsafe building notice on July 19 “due to signs of deterioration” in various parts of the garage. The notice gave Plymouth Plaza LLC 20 days to complete the work.

Cantrell emailed Plymouth Plaza co-owner Elliot Katz on July 28 saying he could disregard the compliance date on the notice and that he would not be moving forward with enforcement at that time.

At that point, Clearwater building officials did not believe the issues with the structure rose to the level of concern that would require closing the garage to the public, and the building’s owners appeared to be making a good-faith effort to address the problems, Gina Clayton, the city’s director of planning and development, said Monday.

On Oct. 12, Cantrell sent a follow-up email to Katz to see how things were going with the garage. Katz responded the same day saying he’d found a contractor and was working on getting the engineering report.

Katz later told officials he’d paid to hire the structural engineer, Dansco Engineering, LLC. Katz said Dansco’s company’s report “stated there are no current life safety issues.”

After receiving the report, Katz hired Forgue General Contracting to fix the issues. Katz did not submit the engineering report to the city or apply for a permit for the work as required, city officials said.

Forgue General Contracting hired Klock, who owned M. Klock Welding services, to make repairs on the parking garage’s stairwells, records show.

Demorris Matthews, an employee and friend of Klock’s, told police that just before the collapse, they were removing and replacing rusted brackets that attach the stairs to the landing of the parking garage. They started from the top floor and worked their way down.

Matthews said Klock was on the bottom floor stairwell cutting the last of four brackets that needed to be replaced and Matthews was grinding and cleaning the area where the brackets had been cut.

Then the stairwell suddenly collapsed, Matthews said. He called out for Klock but heard no reply.

“We believe, based on the work that was being done on (the) metal brackets, that that was a contributing cause to it,” Slaughter said. “And we don’t believe that Mitchel would have been responsible for having to know what the impact of those brackets were.”

The city eventually obtained the Dansco engineering report, dated Oct. 19, and provided a copy to the Times on Monday. It cited “many structural issues that are of serious concern” including “severe oxidation noted at metal angles and embeds supporting stair landings.”

At the time, none of the issues “appear to have risen to the level of life safety but unattended to can easily escalate to that level,” the report says. One of the report’s eight recommendations was to clean and coat the oxidized metal components of the structure.

“You should get a building permit before you start doing structural work,” Clayton said. “If you’re in that situation, and you’ve done the required engineering we’ve asked you to do, submit it and we can make a determination on how to move forward.”

Crews had to demolish the stairwell to recover Klock’s body two days later. An autopsy report shows Klock suffered multiple blunt force injuries and his cause of death was blunt trauma.

Alexis Klock has retained the South Florida firm Grossman Roth Yaffa Cohen, which has represented clients in prominent fatal collapse cases including last year’s Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside and the 2018 collapse of Florida International University pedestrian bridge.

The lawsuit filed in February claims that the garage’s “concrete, structural integrity, pre-cast members and other foundational materials, especially around the stairwells, were in a hazardous and vulnerable condition and required remediation to prevent a catastrophic event from occurring.”

Plymouth and Friedus’ management company, ZFC Real Estate, “deliberately concealed, withheld and misrepresented the danger presented by the dilapidated and hazardous garage, which prevented Mitchel Klock from exercising informed judgment about whether to perform work on the garage,” the complaint claims.

“The moral of the story is you can’t have places that are so structurally flawed that people get killed simply by driving through it or living there or showing up for work,” attorney Stuart Grossman said.