DA: 3 execs exposed students to asbestos

Three former key executives with the defunct nonprofit Firm Build are accused of knowingly exposing high school students to the cancer-causing agent asbestos under the guise of involving the students in work experience and job training programs.

Investigators with the Merced County District Attorney's Office say they've found at least five victims -- although up to 80 teens may have been affected.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said the suspects -- Rudy Buendia III, 47, of Planada, and Patrick Bowman, 43, of Los Banos -- turned themselves in to law enforcement Wednesday and were booked into the Merced County Main Jail. The third suspect, Joseph Cuellar, 70, of Fresno, turned himself in Thursday to the Fresno County Jail and will be sent back to Merced County.

Attorneys for the defendants Thursday questioned Morse's allegations, saying they haven't seen the charges against their clients.

Each of the men will be charged with five felony counts of child endangerment and five counts of knowingly exposing someone to harmful materials, Morse said.

Anna Hazel, a district attorney's investigator, said she interviewed the former students and two Firm Build job coaches. The victims, who were around 16 and 17 years old at the time, removed asbestos from the Automotive Training Center, at 2245 Jetstream Drive in the Castle Commerce Center in Atwater, under the direction of Firm Build between September 2005 and March 2006.

The students allegedly removed asbestos floor tiles and insulation from pipes inside the old building. Even worse, according to investigators, the students demolished tiles with hammers and other tools, creating an airborne cloud of asbestos fibers they may have inhaled.

Students reported the dust was so thick inside the building, they sometimes had to leave for fresh air, investigators said. The students, who are now adults, said they were only supplied with cotton masks, hard hats and goggles -- equipment which fell far short of the protective suits needed to properly remove asbestos.