A Lewis County Superior Court judge has dismissed all charges against the last codefendant criminally accused of causing the death of a Chehalis man in a trench collapse during construction of the Skookumchuck Wind Farm in January 2020.
Kenneth P. DeShazer, 51, of Los Angeles, had been facing one count of first-degree manslaughter for his alleged involvement in the events leading to the death of 24-year-old Jonathan F. Stringer on Jan. 9, 2020.
DeShazer was one of five codefendants charged in August 2021 for Stringer’s death.
Lewis County Superior Court Judge James Lawler dismissed all charges against the other four codefendants — worker Paul S. Csizsmar, 25; site foreman Matt Buckles, 43, of Edmond, Oklahoma; site manager Kurt Schwarting, 46, of Bakersfield, California; and site supervisor Joel A. Thome, 32, of West Lowville, New York — in January 2022.
In arguing for the dismissal of their clients’ cases, the attorneys for DeShazer’s codefendants argued that DeShazer’s case was the only one where state prosecutors had enough evidence to allege the defendant acted in a way that led to the victim’s death.
However, Lawler ruled Tuesday that prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to prove DeShazer caused Stringer’s death.
DeShazer, Stringer and Csizsmar had been working to install a conduit under a culvert at the Skookumchuck Wind Farm site along the Lewis and Thurston county border on Jan. 9, 2020.
During the installation process, the conduit became jammed, and DeShazer entered the trench to set up rigging that would allow them to pull the conduit under the culvert using the excavator.
Due to poor weather and poor soil conditions, the trench walls collapsed on DeShazer while he was inside, burying him in an estimated 1-and-a-half feet of dirt. Csizsmar and Stringer then jumped into the trench to free DeShazer.
“I told John (Stringer) to get out of the trench, and he said ‘No,’” said DeShazer in an interview that was quoted in the court documents. “He goes, ‘I’m not letting you’ — he goes, ‘If you’re going, I’m going,’ and then he goes ‘I’m going to save you.’ That’s his exact words … That’s when it caved in on top of him.”
Stringer, DeShazer and Csizsmar were all buried “in varying depths of soil” during the secondary collapse, according to court documents.
Csizsmar was able to free himself and call for help and DeShazer was “sustained by a pocket of air and survived the trench collapse,” according to court documents, but Stringer was killed.
His body was recovered the next day.
An autopsy confirmed that Stringer died “of asphyxiation due to chest compression caused by the weight of soil on top of him from the trench collapse,” according to court documents.
While prosecutors argued DeShazer’s actions were criminally negligent, Lawler ruled that the prosecutors’ case didn’t meet the burden of proof required by law for the case to continue to trial.
Lawler ruled that DeShazer didn’t proximately cause Stringer’s death — and even if proximate cause existed, “the fateful actions of Mr. Stringer, and the second collapse, were intervening and superseding causes of the death of Mr. Stringer, that relieve Mr. DeShazer of criminal liability,” according to court documents.
“Mr. DeShazer was not the cause of the death of Mr. Stringer. He never took any action directing Mr. Stringer to enter the ditch. In reality, the company's failure to ensure a safe work environment is to blame for the death of Mr. Stringer,” said DeShazer’s attorney, D. Angus Lee, in an email to The Chronicle following Tuesday’s ruling.
The Washington state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) levied $579,874 in fines against three companies involved with the Skookumchuck Wind Farm project for worksite safety laws violations that L&I determined played a role in Stringer’s death.
Roughly $545,000 of those fines were issued to RES-Americas System 3 LLC, the main site contractor, which was cited for eight workplace violations, and parent company RES Americas Construction Inc., which was cited for six violations, according to previous Chronicle reporting. A third company, GEMS, a medical service contractor, was cited for one serious violation and fined $4,200.
L&I approached the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office in early 2020 with the results of its preliminary investigation about the possibility of pursuing criminal charges, according to Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Meyer. It was around that time when Stringer’s estate was negotiating a large settlement against RES-America, RES-America Construction and Weyerhaeuser, which owns the land the project was constructed on.
Stringer’s family settled a wrongful death claim against those three companies for $12 million in February 2021.
The settlement, according to probate case documents filed in the court, is believed to be “one of the largest payments for the wrongful death of a single individual in Washington state history, and may be tied for the largest such settlement.”
The estate’s beneficiaries include Stringer’s daughter, who was 3 years old when the settlement was reached in March 2021. Stringer is also survived by his fiancée, Ashlee Thompson.