Merced County high school students who were exposed to cancer-causing asbestos soon will have an opportunity to confront in court the three men responsible for risking their health.
A federal judge has set an Aug. 19 sentencing date for Rudy Buendia III, 50, Patrick Bowman, 46, and Joseph Cuellar, 73.
They were convicted in May after pleading no contest to state charges of felony treating, handling or disposing of asbestos in a manner that caused an unreasonable risk of serious injury to students, with knowing or reckless disregard for the risk.
In federal court in Fresno, the trio in March pleaded no contest to violating federal asbestos laws.
Under the terms of their plea agreement with Merced County prosecutors, the three will serve the state and federal sentences at the same time, likely spending about two years in federal prison.
The men had been scheduled to appear in federal court for sentencing on June 3. That date was postponed until August to give federal prosecutors additional time to prepare a request for restitution for the victims who were exposed to airborne asbestos, said Lauren Horwood, spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner of the Eastern District of California.
Prosecutors said Buendia, Bowman and Cuellar cut corners on a renovation project by using at least nine high school vocational students to remove asbestos from the Automotive Training Center at Castle Commerce Center from September 2005 to March 2006. The students lacked the proper training or protective gear to perform such work.
Horwood said the students named as victims in the federal case will have an opportunity to give impact statements in court during the August sentencing hearing. However, she said, federal prosecutors are also interested in hearing from any other students who may have been exposed to the asbestos during the renovation work.
"We want to get a better response from potential victims regarding their interest in medical monitoring to determine if they are or will be experiencing adverse effects from their exposure to airborne asbestos," Horwood wrote in an email.
Horwood said anyone who was exposed to airborne asbestos during the renovation should call the U.S. Attorney's Office at (559) 497-4000.
Also civil case pending
Although the criminal case against the three men will be wrapped up after August, the legal saga of Firm Build could take awhile to play out.
Ten students who worked during the renovation project have a pending civil case in Merced County Superior Court that seeks undisclosed damages from Buendia, Bowman and Cuellar. The civil case, which seeks damages due to possible injuries and emotional suffering, also names the Merced County Office of Education as a defendant, in addition to Lee Andersen, Merced County superintendent of schools at the time.
The former students, who are now adults in their 20s, are being represented in the civil case by Stockton attorney Daniel Malakauskas.
Malakauskas said the convictions of all three men in federal and state court "dramatically helps" his clients' civil case.
"The unfortunate reality is, I doubt Merced County Office of Education will take responsibility, and they will try to distance themselves as much as possible," Malakauskas said.
Nathan Quevedo, MCOE spokesman, responded to Malakauskas' comment, saying although he can't comment on pending litigation, the MCOE considers student safety their highest priority. "As an example, every school employee in Merced County has been given a card outlining their responsibilities as a mandated reporter," Quevedo wrote in an email.
Until recently, Bowman had worked as a mathematics teacher at Valley Community School in Los Banos. Quevedo said Bowman is no longer employed at the school and his contract with the MCOE has ended.
According to court documents, the students and others removed and disposed of about 1,000 linear feet of pipe insulation and additional tank insulation at the 2245 Jetstream Drive building in Atwater, which the defendants knew contained asbestos.
The students, according to the documents, removed the cancer-causing substance without proper protective equipment or taking proper safety measures.
When the incident occurred, Bowman was Firm Build's board president and coordinator of the Workplace Learning Academy, which was created at the Valley Community School to teach trade skills to at-risk students.
Buendia was Firm Build's project manager, scouting and determining the nonprofit's projects.
Cuellar was an administrative manager who had the contractor license that Firm Build used to find grant funding, procure contracts and pull permits for projects, according to investigators.
Firm Build was launched in 1998 as a program of the Merced County Housing Authority. It was established to allow the authority to modernize its stock of public housing while giving residents marketable skills.
In 2005, the MCOE negotiated the lease of the building at Castle Commerce Center for renovations by Firm Build into an automotive teaching center. The lease stated the building had asbestos, lead-based paint, black mold and groundwater contamination.
An environmental management firm in June 2005 also conducted a review of the site and found asbestos.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.