Witnesses say they tried to inform Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel and others about asbestos ahead of demolition
photo by: Nick Krug
TOPEKA — Two witnesses said Thursday that they tried to inform local developer Thomas Fritzel or his business associates that there were hazardous materials at Lawrence’s Alvamar Country Club, but that Fritzel went on with renovations to the club in spite of their warnings.
The witnesses, both of whom worked in the construction insdustry, testified at a federal trial in U.S. District Court in Topeka. 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, a substance that has been linked to cancer.
Federal prosecutor Richard Hathaway called several witnesses to testify about their dealings with the project. Two people testified that they attempted to inform Fritzel or others involved in the project that the clubhouse roof contained asbestos, and Kansas Department of Health and Environment employees testified that Fritzel proceeded with the demolition without providing their agency the required notification. But Fritzel’s defense attorney called some of the details of those accounts into question and said that Fritzel took appropriate steps to dispose of the asbestos once KDHE samples indicated it was present.
Carpenter and contractor Jay Patterson, who is now retired, testified that in 2008 he took roof samples when the former owners of Alvamar were considering replacing the clubhouse roof. He said lab results found that part of the roof contained a material with a high level of asbestos that becomes airborne when disturbed. Patterson said he gave that lab report to Jayhawk Club General Manager Wesley Lynch in 2016. Despite that warning, he said, he later saw crews demolishing part of the clubhouse without properly disposing of the asbestos first.
Patterson, who said he lives about 100 yards from the clubhouse, said he went to the equipment operator and told him to stop because there was asbestos in the roof and then continued on to the job trailer to speak with Lynch. He said he had no idea what was done with the information he had to provided Lynch.
During cross-examination, Edward Novak, Fritzel’s attorney, brought up two letters that Patterson’s wife sent to the city planning department on behalf of herself and Patterson, expressing concern about the Jayhawk Club’s plan to construct apartments and the additional traffic they would create. Patterson said he did share those concerns. Novak also asked Patterson if Alvamar board member Jerry Magnuson had asked him not to say anything about the asbestos, and Patterson responded that was correct.
In his opening statements Wednesday, Novak said the purchase agreement between Alvamar and the investment group Fritzel was part of indicated there were no hazardous materials, including asbestos, on the property. He also said Wednesday that the report regarding the sample Patterson collected was not in files Alvamar provided.
Hathaway then called on Scott Mesler, former owner of Mesler Roofing, who said he had a conversation with Patterson about asbestos being improperly disposed of at the clubhouse. Mesler said he informed KDHE that a building that contained asbestos was being demolished without the asbestos being properly remediated.
KDHE employee Philip Schlaman was also called to testify. He said anytime a structure is to be demolished, the owners and/or contractor must provide KDHE a demolition notification, even if it is not clear asbestos is present. Schlaman said there is then a 10-day waiting period during which KDHE has the option to inspect the building if it is suspected of containing asbestos. He said that to his knowledge, neither Fritzel nor any member of his organization prepared the form.
Following the report from Mesler, Schlaman said he and his co-worker Christina Gustafson visited the clubhouse site on Oct. 13, 2016, and took a samples from a large debris pile that included the roofing material suspected of containing asbestos. Photos of the site and debris piles were shown in court. Schlaman said he subsequently told Fritzel via email and in a meeting that all work on the site needed to cease and that nothing should be moved. Schlaman said Fritzel sent him a report regarding a sample that came back negative for asbestos, but that he told Fritzel that he didn’t think the material sampled matched up with the sample he took.
Schlaman said that when he and Gustafson returned to the site on Oct. 28, 2016, they found that building work had continued, the debris pile had been removed and dumpsters on the site were in different locations. Schlaman said that though Fritzel hired an asbestos abatement company once the KDHE sample indicated asbestos was present, that company had not moved the debris pile.
Hathaway also called Gustafson to testify. She corroborated many aspects of Schlaman’s account and said that when they asked Fritzel if he knew about asbestos, he’d said he knew the word but didn’t do many remodels.
Novak questioned the conflicting dates on some of the paperwork related to the collection of the sample and how it was handled. For example, Novak said that the chain of custody document for the sample was dated the day after the sample was collected; that the sample was stored for a time in Schlaman’s unlocked office; and that it was several days before the sample was sent to the lab for testing. Schlaman said he could not explain the confusion with the dates but that KDHE waited to take the sample to the lab, which is located in Kansas City, until it could consolidate it with another trip in the area.
Richard Herries, former golf course superintendent at Alvamar, said he also heard from Patterson that that there was asbestos in the roof. Herries said he emailed Fritzel and Lynch about the asbestos, because he wanted to make sure they were aware. He said he didn’t get written responses to the email but that he was called into Lynch’s office, where Lynch brought up the email on his computer and relayed a message from Fritzel that Herries should never put anything like that in writing, and that it should instead be communicated in person or in a phone call. On cross-examination, Novak clarified that Fritzel was not present when Lynch spoke to Herries about the email.
The owner of the asbestos abatement company, Richard Hall, was shown the photo of the debris pile and said the pile was not there when he came to the site on Oct. 20, 2016, but that he did remediate other debris on the site. Novak also pulled up photos of the debris and asked if there was debris other than the roof, to which Hall responded that there were.
The trial will continue Friday, when Hathaway is expected to call additional witnesses before the defense begins the presentation of its case.