January 31, 2009 in City

State may look into RPS garage death

Prosecutor wants input, still considering charges
By The Spokesman-Review

View previous stories and documents.

Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker said this week that he may ask the state attorney general’s office to help decide if manslaughter charges should be brought in the case of a woman who died when her car fell from the River Park Square mall’s parking garage.

Tucker said he has reviewed the four boxes of evidence that were turned over to him in September by federal prosecutors, who investigated the 2006 incident as well as accusations of fraud connected to the redevelopment of the mall in the late 1990s.

River Park Square and the mall’s garage are affiliates of the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

For several months, some critics of the Cowles Co., including former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte, have urged Tucker to turn the decision over to the state.

Tucker said given the controversy over the garage, consideration by another source might be in order. He said he will decide the direction of the case as early as next week.

An examination by the state would provide assurance “for some who thought the Cowles family was pushing me around,” Tucker said. “The more people who look at it and are in some kind of agreement, the better.”

On April 8, 2006, Jo Ellen Savage, of Pullman, was killed when her car hit a concrete barrier, which gave way, and she fell from the fifth floor of the garage onto an entry ramp. Witnesses reported to police that Savage hit the barrier at a low speed.

In September, David Savage, Jo Ellen Savage’s ex-husband and a former president of the Washington State Bar Association, said he believes there is “substantial grounds for a criminal prosecution for manslaughter” based on information he learned during civil litigation on the matter. Cowles Co.’s insurers paid Savage’s family a settlement “substantially” more than $1 million, he said.

Les Weatherhead, an attorney who represents River Park Square, said the Cowles Co. doesn’t have an opinion on involving the state in Tucker’s decision.

Tucker and the county prosecutor’s office “have their obligations to carry out, and it’s up to them to do as they see fit,” Weatherhead said.

He said the Cowles Co. has acted properly through the years to ensure the garage met building standards.

“The testing showed that they met the code,” Weatherhead said, referring to a 1993 engineering report commissioned by River Park Square. “Subsequent to that, the garage took normal steps to maintain and preserve the garage. It was 13 years later that this awful accident occurred.”

Savage has said evidence indicates the company knew of the risk but that it put “the economics of the garage ahead of public safety.”

Federal attorneys examined the death as part of an investigation into the controversial financing of the River Park Square garage renovation project. At a news conference in September, Robert Westinghouse, criminal chief for the U.S. attorney’s office in Western Washington, said that the investigation found no “criminal wrongdoing” related to the financing of the garage but that information from a federal grand jury was turned over to Tucker’s office to decide if state charges should be brought in connection with the failure of the garage wall.

Tucker said a decision would be made about manslaughter charges before the statute of limitations runs out on the case in April.

In 1993, engineer Richard Atwood warned River Park Square officials that “it appears a problem exists” in the sprandrels – the sections of walls that line the garage. Atwood’s report said “results of a theoretical analysis indicate that the panels are capable of resisting the force” required in building code, but that the analysis may not be correct because some of the panels had broken when hit by cars. He recommended the garage erect cables to prevent cars from hitting barriers or that the owners conduct more extensive tests.

Neither action was taken, but Cowles Co. officials said they instead took other steps.

After Savage’s death, Cowles Co. hired Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates to conduct a new examination. The study found that more than half of the spandrels didn’t meet current building code, which requires garage walls to withstand 6,000 pounds of force. But the report argued that since many of the spandrels were built in 1974, they were grandfathered in under older building code. The report found that six panels from the 1999 addition to the garage violated current building code.

Cowles Co. also placed metal panels and bars on the spandrels to shore up the walls.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.

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