Contrasting stories emerge as trial begins against Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel on asbestos charges
photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo
TOPEKA — Jurors heard two stories on Wednesday of events surrounding the renovations at Lawrence’s Alvamar Country Club, when developer Thomas Fritzel is alleged to have disregarded regulations for handling hazardous materials.
Fritzel is charged with illegally disposing of asbestos-containing material during a 2016 remodeling of the Alvamar Country Club in west Lawrence, now known as the Jayhawk Club. The federal indictment alleges that in order to save money, Fritzel knowingly violated federal laws for safely handling asbestos, which has been linked to cancer.
In opening statements to jurors in U.S. District Court Wednesday in Topeka, federal prosecutor Richard Hathaway said that Fritzel was aware that the clubhouse roof contained asbestos and that he ignored instructions from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment regarding proper asbestos disposal. But Fritzel’s defense attorney said the developer was unaware of the problem until after the KDHE ran tests on the roof, and that he took appropriate steps to dispose of the asbestos once the results came back.
Fritzel is charged with three counts: knowingly failing to notify environmental agencies prior to removing asbestos material, knowingly failing to wet asbestos before removing it from the construction site, and knowingly failing to dispose of asbestos waste in leak-tight containers.
Hathaway said that in 2008, when the former owners of Alvamar were considering replacing the clubhouse roof, carpenter and contractor Jay Patterson took samples of the roof, which were found to contain asbestos. In the midst of the demolition of the roof in 2016, Hathaway said, Patterson informed workers on the site that the roof contained asbestos, and that information was communicated to Fritzel via email.
Hathaway also noted that the construction company of Fritzel’s father, Gene Fritzel, built the original clubhouse in the 1980s.
Hathaway said that Patterson also informed KDHE of the demolition, and KDHE subsequently found that large debris piles on the site contained asbestos. He said KDHE personnel told Fritzel that work on the site needed to cease immediately until the asbestos could be properly disposed of.
However, Hathaway said, the construction work continued. He said the asbestos materials weren’t wetted down to stop them from going airborne or disposed of in leak-tight containers, which he noted would have entailed additional costs.
But Edward Novak, Fritzel’s attorney, provided a different account of events in his opening statement. Novak said that Fritzel did not know the Alvamar clubhouse contained asbestos but that he made an effort to properly dispose of the material once he was aware of the problem.
Specifically, Novak said that when the investor group Fritzel was part of purchased Alvamar in 2015, the purchase agreement indicated there were no hazardous materials anywhere on the property, including asbestos, and that a 2016 sample the investment group submitted from the roof came back negative for asbestos. Novak also said the investment group had access to Alvamar’s files, and the 2008 roof sample found to have asbestos was not among them.
Novak said that Fritzel was out of town when KDHE was originally on the construction site, but that he hired a company to properly dispose of the asbestos after KDHE told him to. He said by that time, most of the roof material had already been hauled away, but that the company properly disposed of the remaining roof material and other material from the clubhouse that was found to have asbestos. He added that because the purchase agreement included an indemnification, Fritzel was reimbursed for those costs.
According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s website, asbestos is a fibrous material often used as insulation and as a fire retardant. Exposure to the material can increase the risk of lung disease, which could take years to develop. The major adverse health effects connected to exposure to asbestos are asbestosis and lung cancers such as mesothelioma, according to the EPA.
Originally, Fritzel was charged along with his son Tucker Fritzel and business associates Wesley Lynch and Casey Stewart, the latter of whom is also Fritzel’s nephew. The indictments, which were handed down in June 2018, originally charged each of the defendants with the three counts Fritzel currently faces as well as a count of conspiracy. However, last week, Hathaway filed a motion to dismiss the count of conspiracy against Fritzel and all charges against his codefendants. In the motion, Hathaway stated that the dismissals will make the trial of the case “more efficient and streamlined,” and the court granted the dismissal Monday.
During the hearing, U.S. District Judge Holly Teeter said the trial is expected to take 10 days. Wednesday’s proceedings began with jury selection and concluded after the opening statements.
Fritzel is also facing other charges in a separate federal case. In that case, Fritzel and his bookkeeper, Keela Lam, were indicted on charges of scheming to collect more than $400,000 in fraudulent tax refunds from the City of Lawrence. That case is tentatively set to go on trial in January 2020.