Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel found guilty of improperly disposing of asbestos
photo by: Nick Krug
TOPEKA — Jurors have convicted Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel of illegally disposing of asbestos-containing material while doing remodeling work at Alvamar Country Club in 2016.
After deliberating for about two hours Tuesday, the jury found Fritzel guilty on all three counts of which he was charged: 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.
Throughout Fritzel’s weeklong trial in U.S. District Court, federal prosecutor Richard Hathaway argued that Fritzel was aware that the Alvamar clubhouse’s roof contained asbestos, a hazardous material that has been linked to cancer, and that he did not follow Kansas Department of Health and Environment requirements for its disposal. Defense attorney Edward Novak maintained that Fritzel took appropriate steps to dispose of the asbestos.
On all three counts, Fritzel faces up to seven years in federal prison and a fine of up to $500,000, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney’s office. The release states that sentencing will be set for a later date.
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In his closing statements Tuesday, Hathaway told jurors the case boils down to what Fritzel knew, when he knew it and what he did in response.
Months prior to the partial demolition of the Alvamar clubhouse, Hathaway said, Fritzel was informed the building contained asbestos and was provided a report regarding a sample that showed the roof contained a type of asbestos that can become airborne. Hathaway said that once aware of the asbestos, Fritzel had his own samples taken from an area he knew wouldn’t have asbestos and proceeded with demolition without notifying the KDHE or hiring a licensed asbestos remediation company.
Hathaway outlined a timeline of events that started in 2008, when the positive sample was taken at Alvamar’s request. In 2016, Fritzel purchased Alvamar, now known as the Jayhawk Club, and in March of that year an email was sent to Fritzel and several others involved with the remodeling project alerting them to the 2008 report. Then in May 2016, Matt Gough, an attorney who worked with Fritzel on the purchase, asked Alvamar about the 2008 asbestos report, and it was provided.
In June of 2016, Fritzel’s company collected the roof sample that tested negative. Asbestos Consulting and Testing lab analyst Tami Van previously testified that the sample had been taken from a piece of roofing tar paper, which she said generally would not contain asbestos.
Hathaway argued that Fritzel submitted a sample he knew would test negative so he could justify the demolition.
“He tried to find a reason to continue, and to cover up his crime,” Hathaway said.
Hathaway also reminded jurors about a large debris pile that apparently disappeared from the site after it was discovered to contain asbestos.
KDHE employees Philip Schlaman and Christina Gustafson previously testified that on Oct. 13, 2016, they visited the Alvamar site and took a sample from the debris pile that ultimately tested positive for asbestos. The KDHE employees said they subsequently told Fritzel and others associated with the project that work on the site should cease and that the debris pile and other dumpsters containing debris should not be moved until further notice.
But Hathaway said that Fritzel had the debris pile moved off site as quickly as he could.
Hathaway compared several photos previously shown to the jury. One, which the KDHE took of the Alvamar site on Oct. 13, clearly shows the debris pile. But in two others, taken on Oct. 19 and Oct. 28, the debris pile is gone. Hathaway also brought up receipts from Hamm Landfill that indicated that between Oct. 14 and Oct. 26, 2016, a company owned by Fritzel brought at least 16 truckloads of debris, or about 75 tons of material, to an area of the landfill not meant for hazardous waste.
Fritzel hired an asbestos abatement company, B&R Insulation, to remediate asbestos-containing debris. But a B&R employee testified that the large debris pile was not there when the company cleared asbestos material from the site Oct. 28 and 31 and that Fritzel was charged only about $5,000 for the work. Hathaway noted that Fritzel recouped about $100,000 from Alvamar due to the asbestos issues.
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In his closing arguments, Novak didn’t deny that Fritzel had notice of possible asbestos in the clubhouse. However, he said Fritzel had reason to doubt the 2008 report and that he promptly and responsibly had the asbestos remediated once the results of the KDHE sample were known.
Novak questioned the credibility of Jay Patterson, the now retired carpenter and contractor who collected the 2008 roof sample. During his testimony and cross-examination, Patterson said he lived next to Alvamar and that his wife had written two letters to the city — on behalf of both of them — opposing the proposed additions at Alvamar. When he was cross-examined, Patterson admitted that he did have concerns about the traffic the proposed development would create.
Novak said Patterson’s interest in stopping the development was clear, and that when Fritzel got the 2008 asbestos report in May 2016, he had no reason to believe a “doctored report from a disgruntled person.” He said Fritzel also had a right to rely on the sample he had taken in June 2016, even if he might have been mistaken. After the KDHE sample results came back, Novak emphasized, Fritzel immediately contacted B&R about the remediation.
In addition, Novak noted that a digit on the address of the 2008 report was written over, creating a question as to what building on the Alvamar site it referenced.
Regarding the debris pile Fritzel is alleged to have moved, Novak said it was indeed moved, but only to a dumpster so that B&R could more easily handle it. Novak also questioned the Hamm landfill receipts, saying that there was a lot of activity on the Alvamar site and that no witness had testified about where the loads of debris dropped off at Hamm came from. He asked jurors whether it was reasonable to infer that all the loads came from Alvamar when Fritzel may have had other projects going on.
In addition, Novak drew attention to the purchase contract between Alvamar and an investor group Fritzel was a part of. He said the contract stated that there were no hazardous materials on the property and included a provision that would financially protect Fritzel in the case of such an issue. Novak said that while Alvamar had a motive to hide the asbestos, Fritzel did not.
“So why would he hide asbestos, why would he ship it off site, if it wasn’t going to cost him anything?” Novak asked.
When asked by the Journal-World after the verdict whether he or Fritzel had comment, Novak said they did not. Hathaway also declined to comment.