Owner avoids jail time | RecordCourier.com

Owner avoids jail time

by Regina Purcell, Staff Writer

A year after a fatal explosion at his Douglas County aerosol recycling plant, the owner received a stiffer sentence than recommended.

The sentence allows Walter Gonzalez, 47, who owns Depressurized Technologies International Inc., more time to make restitution.

Gonzalez, appeared in the 9th Judicial Court before Judge Michael Gibbons for sentencing Monday.

“You walked into the (court) door with the pretty good likelihood you’d be going to jail,” said Gibbons. “In light of your illness, family and business. I decided to forego jail.

“It is a very sad situation. Your survival and your life has to have more meaning.”

Gonzalez faces surgery for diverticulitis D small, inflamed bulging pouches in the intestine DEwithin the next two weeks, according to his attorney Noel Manoukian.

Gonzalez pleaded no contest Aug. 5 to two felony charges brought by the offices of the state Attorney General and the Douglas County District Attorney D the state’s first case on record where a business owner was charged with a felony because of an industrial accident.

Gibbons ordered five-year suspended prison sentences on both charges for a total of 10 consecutive years, with a maximum of 10 years probation, and 250 hours of community service.

The recommendation of the plea agreement and the probation department called for a five-year suspended sentence , a term of probation and 160 hours of community service.

In addition, Greg Zunino, of the state’s attorney general’s office, said Gonzalez must make restitution to the state’s uninsured worker’s fund in excess of $2 million.

Zunino assured Gibbons that he will assist Gonzalez in making restitution to the state, by getting the DTI plant in Minden re-opened in order for him to generate money to pay what he owes.

Gonzalez pleaded to reduced charges brought by the state attorney general’s office of failure to provide and secure industrial insurance compensation for an employee, who suffers a fatal injury, brought by the attorney general. Douglas County brought the additional felony charge of performance of an act or neglect of duty in willful or wanton disrespect of safety of persons or property.

State inspectors say the plant, located near Minden-Tahoe Airport, exploded when a spark from a forklift ignited butane and propane gases being released as workers punctured aerosol cans with metal spikes as part of the recycling process.

Both charges were based on the death of Jaime Gonzales, who was killed in the blast and is survived by a wife and four children. The other four injured victims Raul Gonzales, brother of Jaime, Cecilio San Juan, Elias San Juan and Susano Lopez were in the courtroom Monday.

Lopez and Gonzales testified as part of the Victim’s Impact Program, as did DTI supervisor Brigido Beraranza, who is still on the payroll.

The hearing was fraught with interruptions by Deputy District Attorney Mike McCormick, who objected to Manoukian’s cross examination of victims and their account of what happened Sept. 17, 2001 when the plant exploded.

Manoukian wanted to establish that victims were not following safety instructions, and Gonzales, who died in the blast, was not doing his regular job.

“I object to this whole line of questioning,” McCormick said. “Now we are speaking about the dead victim and trying to put the blame on Jaime. I am appalled.”

Gibbons said Manoukian had the right to ask his questions, but McCormick was not allowed to ask questions as part of the plea agreement.

“I don’t think the justice system can ever come close to making the victims whole,” said McCormick, after the verdict.

“Nothing will ever be resolved for them.”

Manoukian said while he knows Gibbons “struggled” with his decision, he was “very competent and effective.”

The 10-year sentence and probation gives Gonzalez additional time to pay myriad fines imposed by the Office of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of more than $100,000 and the Environmental Protection Agency of more than $21,000. Manoukian said Gonzales has made $5,000 in payments toward each fine and still faces numerous civil lawsuits from the victims.

Gonzales plans to get DTI reopened again next year. He and his wife, Doris, are principal shareholders in the company. He assured the judge at the end of his hearing he would make necessary adjustments to ensure employee safety.

“Sounds great, but why were (safety measures) not in effect a year ago?” asked Gibbons.

Gonzales also turned to address the victims in court, speaking in Spanish. A court translator said he “expressed regrets and condolences and offered to help victims and notify them of new safety measures so they know other workers are safe.”

n R-C Staff Writer Regina Purcell can be reached by e-mail at rpurcell@recordcourier.com

DTI owner receives sentence