Snow and Avalanche Center 2006 Avalanche News

Washington company pardoned in criminally negligent homicide

Case stemmed from death of worker in Alaska

Owner: Thom Fischer
Founded: 1980
Headquarters: Bellingham WA
Local ties: Fischer built the Sportsplex in 1996. It was sold to the city of Bellingham for $4.2 million in 2003.
Company information:

A Bellingham company convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the death of one of its workers, killed in an avalanche in 1999, was pardoned by former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski just days before he left office.

Gary Stone, a 46-year-old father of five, was killed in an avalanche while on a Whitewater Engineering Corp. job site outside Cordova, Alaska. Whitewater is based in Bellingham.

In a Nov. 30 letter addressed to Thom Fischer, Whitewater’s president and owner, Murkowski said: “I recognize that criminal convictions against a company has serious implications for small businesses operating in Alaska.” He said the criminal charges “seem to be excessive punishment.”

The victim’s family said that the state never notified them of the pardon, which the company had requested.

“This is a huge slap on the face,” said Stone’s daughter, Jessica Ridinger, 30, who burst into tears when told about the pardon.

A pardon in Alaska does not wipe the crime from the record. However, it may offer the company insurance breaks and opportunities for future federal or state jobs, legal experts said.

Fischer was initially charged personally with manslaughter in Stone’s death. That charge was dropped in return for a no-contest plea to criminally negligent homicide on behalf of the company.

Stone was working on a $15 million hydroelectric project in a valley outside Cordova. He was on a backhoe when snow slid off a 2,000-foot slope and buried him.

Workers had previously complained about the danger, and an avalanche expert hired by the company had warned Fischer there was a high probability of a serious snow slide at the site, according to a report from the state’s occupational safety agency.

Basic, required safety procedures were not followed on the site and the company exhibited gross negligence, according to information submitted by the state at the company’s sentencing. A state report said Fischer didn’t want to spend the money on a comprehensive avalanche control program.

A state judge found the company guilty of negligence in Stone’s death, fined Whitewater $150,000 and ordered the company to pay approximately $17,000 to the victim’s family. Settlement of a Stone family lawsuit left his children with about $7,000 each, family members said.

The state filed a separate lawsuit alleging multiple violations, which was resolved with an additional fine against the company.

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