Men’s death in trench still being investigated

By Kylie Mohr

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON —Nearly four months since two men suffocated in a trench, investigators are still probing what went wrong and who’s at fault.

The Teton County Sheriff’s Office considers the case to be open but not active. It is waiting for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration division of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services to finish its inquiry.

“Our investigation won’t resolve or be concluded until we receive their documentation,” said sheriff’s Detective Dave Hodges. “Once we have the opportunity to review their report, their facts and findings, that will aid us in the direction of our investigation, whether we have enough to close the case or if we continue with more investigation.”

Juan Baez-Sanchez, 42, and Victoriano Garcia-Perez, 56, were alone on the job site at 120 S. Indian Springs Drive on Sept. 28 when the trench collapsed. Law enforcement found a lack of safety precautions in their initial investigation of the residential construction site owned by Wilson developer Jamie Mackay in the gated community.

The trench, which was 12 to 15 feet deep and 4 feet wide, had no supports to prevent a cave-in. Jackson Hole Fire/EMS workers shored up the trench walls during an eight-hour recovery effort to make the trench safe for rescuers to enter.

The men died from compression asphyxiation, Teton County Coroner Brent Blue found. Although the manner was accidental, Blue called the lack of safety shoring of trench walls a contributing factor.

Work site red flags

Although investigators have yet to reach any conclusions, a former contractor on the property said the conditions the men were working in didn’t appear safe. Troy Black, who has 25 years of experience in construction in Wyoming and California, was hired to install a sewer force main in the fall of 2017 when he became uncomfortable with the site.

“The soil was a class C, which means it’s really loamy,” he said. “It can’t stand; you can’t excavate it vertically.”

The instability was a red flag for Black.

“I told my boss I’m not doing it,” Black said. “It’s not safe. The hole’s going to be too deep. No job’s worth not going home at the end of the day.”

Black questioned why Baez-Sanchez and Garcia-Perez were employed outside their area of expertise, landscaping.

“You wouldn’t hire somebody to do electrical work if their only experience is plugging in an extension cord,” he said.

OSHA’s involvement

The sheriff’s office and OSHA are looking at the trench collapse from different perspectives. The sheriff’s office said it is more concerned with the cause of death. OSHA conducts routine investigations of employers and looks into workplace complaints, incidents and fatalities. OSHA can make recommendations and fine employers.

The News&Guide was told in December that OSHA was not investigating due to lack of jurisdiction. But an OSHA spokesman said that’s not the case.

“It has never not been investigated by OSHA,” said Ty Stockton, spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. “They’ve always been investigating it.

“For a while it appeared as though it was not OSHA jurisdiction,” he said, “because OSHA can get involved with employer/employee relationships but not a private homeowner contract relationship.”

Questions of who the men were working for and if the collapse could have been avoided haven’t been answered.

Wyoming is one of 26 states that operate their own OSHA programs under a federally approved plan. Occupational safety and health standards, and the penalty structure, have to be at least as effective as federal standards. Serious violations can net up to $12,675, and willful violations can cost employers up to $126,749.

According to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services annual Work-Related Fatal Injuries report for the period between 2012 and 2017, 17 workers were killed in the construction industry. Thirteen of the 17 fatalities were under OSHA jurisdiction for a complete fatality investigation, like the one ongoing in Teton County.

Prematurely releasing information from the sheriff’s office could be harmful to the state’s investigation, according to Teton County sheriff’s Sgt. Todd Stanyon.

“I don’t want to step on their toes or do anything that could hinder their investigation,” Stanyon said in December.

Despite whispers around the community, Hodges said law enforcement is not pursuing criminal charges at this time.

“There’s no criminal investigation that the sheriff’s office has on its desk right now,” he said. “It would have to be something of great impact that would compel us into a criminal arena.”

Meetings between local law enforcement and state investigators are at least a month away and are expected, for the time being, to occur late in February.

The estimated date of conclusion has continually been bumped back, from December to January to now, February.

Although law enforcement officials know the public wants answers, they stressed that a lengthy investigation isn’t a bad thing.

“We’d rather take more time and be thorough than rush something and miss something,” Stanyon said in December.

“Unfortunately we aren’t NCIS [a TV crime show],” he said. “We can’t finish things before the next commercial break.”