Ex-owner labels wall as unsafe

Police also testify, showing pictures of the crime scene and the broken cable.
Thursday, June 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:06 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

Early in a contentious second day of testimony in the Marcus Floyd involuntary manslaughter trial, prosecutors projected a photograph onto a large, white screen.

Members of Christine Ewing’s family drew an audible breath and turned their eyes away.

Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Richard Hicks asked MU police officer David Licklider, who was on duty at the Mavericks game the night Ewing fell more than 20 feet to her death from Floyd’s climbing wall last July, to identify the photograph.

Licklider had taken the photograph of Ewing’s splattered blood on the asphalt after the fall that night.

Floyd is being tried for second degree involuntary manslaughter in the death of Ewing, 22, who was climbing the wall while her family looked on at a Mid-Missouri Mavericks game July 14. When the cable supporting her snapped, she fell almost 25 feet. She was pronounced dead at University Hospital the next day.

Wednesday, prosecutors said Floyd, owner of Columbia Climbing Gym and Portable Wall, was aware of the need to replace cables on his climbing wall. The company that manufactured the wall emphasized inspection of cables and made it easy to order replacement parts, prosecutors said. Defense attorneys contended that the wall’s previous owner did not make Floyd aware of corrosion in the cables, and the design of the cables inherently made safety checks impossible.

Hicks introduced several photographs into evidence Wednesday, projecting close-ups of the snapped cable and climbing wall onto a screen for the jury to see. The jury, made up of five women and eight men, including one alternate, listened to witness testimony regarding the photographs taken in the days following Ewing’s death.

Licklider testified he observed the broken cable the night Ewing fell.

“I saw rusty wire, a spider effect as far as wires sticking out and broken,” Licklider said. “I did see some tape, which was when we all kind of felt, ‘something is going on here.’”

In cross-examination, defense attorneys Pat Eng and Matt Woods focused on the MU Police Department’s responsibility for safety at the Mavericks game. They also argued that officers may not have been following standard procedures when they used bolt-cutters to remove a portion of the cable as evidence. They questioned MUPD’s method of transporting and storing the seized climbing wall after serving the search warrant, suggesting the wall may have been damaged after the investigation was under way.

In their questioning of Jason Dietz of New Philadelphia, Ohio, the climbing wall’s former owner, the defense attorneys asked him if he ever told Floyd what he had found the day Floyd arrived in Ohio to purchase the wall. That day, Dietz had been operating the wall at a fair when he heard “a sticking noise” that alerted him to a weakness in the middle cable — the easiest route in climbing the wall, and the one Ewing used.

Dietz said he couldn’t remove the rubber sheath covering the base of the cable, so he cut a small slit in the rubber. In the cable underneath, he saw “a couple broken strands,” he said, and wrapped duct tape around it so it wouldn’t fray. Dietz said he closed down the middle route that day because he didn’t think it was safe, and told Floyd later that night while they were playing pool that the cables on the climbing wall needed to be replaced.

Dietz sold the climbing wall to Floyd for $13,000, down from the $18,000 he initially asked for on eBay. Prosecutors said he lowered the price because the wall needed replacements, but the defense portrayed Dietz as a man attempting to make a quick sale, unconcerned about the potential safety hazards the wall concealed.

The president of the California company that manufactured Floyd’s climbing wall testified how Floyd’s climbing wall model worked. Jeff Wilson of Extreme Engineering said he flew to Missouri when he heard of the fall last July, wanting to investigate any potential safety problems with his company’s product. When investigators allowed him to look at the confiscated wall, he said he found multiple safety issues “indicative of the general overall climbing wall environment.”

Woods suggested that Wilson knew there was a weakness in his company’s product — particularly a poor design that made it impossible to inspect the cables under the black rubber sheaths, hiding any corrosion from view.

The trial continues today.

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