LANCASTER — A Coos County Superior Court jury Wednesday returned four guilty verdicts against the former owner of Black Mag Plant, a Colebrook gunpowder manufacturing plant where a 2010 explosion killed two of his workers.
Three-and-a-half hours after the jury got the case just after 11 a.m., Craig Sanborn of Maidstone, Vt., stood with his attorney and faced the seven women and five men. They listened to them return four guilty verdicts, two each on manslaughter and negligent homicide charges.
As Judge Peter H. Bornstein pointed out at a bail hearing that followed, the felony verdicts could amount to a life sentence in state prison for the 64-year-old Sanborn.
It has yet to be decided whether Sanborn will be sentenced on both charges, or whether Coos County Attorney John McCormick will have to choose either two counts of manslaughter or two counts of negligent homicide. In any case, each manslaughter count carries a prison term of up to 30 years, and a count of negligent homicide is punishable by 3-1/2 to seven years. Sanborn is also out on bail on a federal wire fraud charge in Bangor, Maine, Bornstein pointed out, before setting his bail at $250,000 cash or surety.
Jurors got the case midway through the third week of the trial. About 15 of Sanborn's family members and other supporters seated in the gallery behind the defense table kept silent while the verdicts were delivered, then left the courtroom as a group.
While his attorney appeared downcast as the verdicts came in, Sanborn offered little visible reaction, just as he had throughout the trial.
Afterward, defense attorney Mark Sisti huddled with family to discuss bail arrangements, and McCormick and Assistant Coos County Attorney Stephen Murray disappeared into their basement office in the courthouse. A spokeswoman said they would not be available immediately.
Donald Kendall, 56, of Colebrook and Jesse Kennett, 49, of Stratford were killed just after lunchtime on May 14, 2010, a Friday afternoon. They had been working on the heavy industrial machines used to mix and grind gunpowder components when a powerful explosion at the plant rocked downtown Colebrook. That was followed by several more explosions and a large fire.
In his closing arguments Wednesday morning, Sisti sought to cast blame for the fatalities on local, state and federal officials who he said ignored dangerous and potentially deadly conditions at the factory.
He said Sanborn was not to blame.
"The planning board said OK. At the very least, they knew it was a flash-fire hazard. The ATF rep, he didn't shut the site down," the defense lawyer said, regarding the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Local police and fire officials were also aware of the dangerous situation in the same Gould Street building that housed a church, Sisti said. "Trials are one thing. Being a fall guy's another thing altogether," he told the jury.
Sisti also blamed principals of Magkor, a Florida-based firm that had a 40 percent interest in Sanborn's Black Mag business in Colebrook.
"They let that whole operation keep going," he said, while knowing it had not been properly set up for gunpowder manufacturing, and that adequate employee safeguards were not in place.
Finally, Sisti took shots at the post-explosion and fire investigation, faulting various local, state and federal agencies for failing to go up on the roof, for example, where, he said, a worker's watchband was later found.
"The investigation stunk," he said, pointing out that the machines Kendall and Kennett were running the day of the explosions and fire had not since been taken apart for inspection. The exact cause of the disaster has not been discovered.
McCormick agreed with Sisti's comment that the case was "about people."
"This case is about people; two people who are not with us anymore, Jesse Kennett and Donald Kendall," he said when it was his turn to address the jury.Accusing Sisti of trying to place blame for the fatalities everywhere but where it belongs, he said Sanborn was solely at fault for the tragedy.
"I ask you not to be taken in," he said to jurors. "The state license for storage was denied due to safety. The accusation that the investigators could not pinpoint the exact cause is of no consequence," he said.
"There was powder all over the place; it was an explosion waiting to happen," McCormick said.
McCormick had said throughout the trial that Sanborn's refusal to implement basic safeguards and provide other than the most rudimentary protective equipment is primarily why the two workers died. Sisti, meanwhile, had from the outset maintained that Sanborn could not be held responsible since he was on an out-of-state trip and was 800 miles from Colebrook when disaster struck.