BY Jaxon Van Derbeken 6/27/15
Attorneys representing the family of a Berkeley balcony collapse victim have contacted prosecutors to alert them to witness accounts that the deck had a “seemingly unusual slope” before it gave way during a party.
The lawyers for George and Jackie Donohoe — whose 22-year-old daughter,Ashley Donohoe of Rohnert Park, plunged five stories to her death when the balcony gave way June 16 — questioned the Berkeley police handling of the case and welcomed the intervention of Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.
O’Malley’s office opened a criminal investigation after Berkeley officials said police would not look into the deaths of Ashley Donohoe and five others who died in the collapse at 2020 Kittredge St.
City officials declared that the balcony had failed because of moisture-caused rotting in its laminated-wood support beams. But they said finding out how the water had invaded the structure was beyond the scope of their probe.
Police have since joined the investigation led by prosecutors.
“The Donohoe family is very concerned that a proper, independent investigation has not yet been done,” attorney Joseph Lucia wrote in the letter Thursday to O’Malley.
The 176-unit Library Gardens apartment complex where the collapse happened was completed in 2007. Lucia forwarded photos to prosecutors from 2008, 2009 and 2011 that show apparent “water staining” on the balcony, along with anecdotal accounts of water leaks and other problems in the building.
Lucia also wrote that “a number of witnesses” recalled the pronounced slope of the balcony that collapsed. The letter identifies two witnesses, including one who Lucia said had given a statement to Berkeley police.
The design of the balcony and a second rotted deck that was removed after the collapse called for a slight slope outward — about 2 percent, according to architectural plans — to allow for water to drain away from the building.
“These witnesses believed that this may have been an intended design, but in retrospect this may be evidence that there was visible deterioration of the balcony structure,” Lucia wrote.
Eustace de Saint Phalle, another attorney for the family, said in an interview Friday that the Donohoes hope the district attorney follows up on the witness accounts.
“We are certainly concerned that this is valuable and important evidence that may be critical to the investigation, but we do not know yet,” he said of the reported balcony slope.
“We recognize it is very early in this tragedy, and we realize some of these witnesses may need time to grieve — some people may not be ready yet to come forward.”
Another the family’s lawyers in the case, Harry Stern, said the Donohoes had sent a letter to Berkeley police demanding that the balconies be preserved. It was only on June 23, a week after the collapse, that his firm learned that the city intended to give both to the building’s owner, he said.
“We were completely shocked and surprised,” Stern said. “Evidence can get destroyed.”
O’Malley said authorities have since retained both decks.