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Decrepit bridge a dilemma for W.Va. town

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Scott McCloskey The future of the Bellaire Bridge continues to be unknown after the owner was found guilty of criminal contempt this week.
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Scott McCloskey
The future of the Bellaire Bridge continues to be unknown after the owner was found guilty of criminal contempt this week.

BENWOOD, W.Va. — A federal court this week found Bellaire Bridge owner Lee Chaklos guilty of criminal contempt for not disclosing more than $2 million in liens that exist against the bridge, and also misleading the court about the value of its metal.

As a result, Benwood officials believe legal matters will delay the bridge’s demolition for the foreseeable future.

A two-day criminal contempt trial for Chaklos took place Nov. 13-14, 2013, before U.S. District Court Judge Algenon L. Marbley in Columbus. A ruling in the case was posted late Tuesday.

In his ruling, Marbley states Chaklos’ handling of the bridge and its financial status demonstrated “he engaged in misbehavior … (that) obstructed the administration of justice.” This occurred “in the presence of the court,” and was done with “intent to obstruct.”

Marbley set a sentencing date for Dec. 5 in Columbus, and Benwood officials intend to be present to testify during the victim impact portion of the sentencing.

It was discovered by the court during earlier court proceedings in September 2013 that Chaklos had at least three outstanding liens on the bridge totaling $2.1 million. Holders of these liens are DAC Audit Services of Clarkston, Mich., which invested $800,000; RFK Enterprises of New Castle, Pa., $1.2 million; and Scrap Dynamics Corp. of Aurora, Ohio, $100,000. Chaklos had promised investors exclusive rights to the metal to come from the bridge, or a share of the proceeds from the sale.

Chaklos had told the court the value of the bridge and its metal was about $2.4 million based on 5,500 tons of steel at a cost of $436 per ton. But this was contradicted by testimony in court from Joe Blaha, operations manager at Strauss Industries. Blaha testified the cost of steel fluctuates, and was likely at least $40 less per ton than Chaklos’ figures.

Marbley states in the ruling he believes Chaklos knew he was over estimating the price of the metal when he provided the numbers to the court.

Even if Benwood officials were to condemn the bridge and attempt to remove it with the city’s money, the more than $2 million in liens would first have to be satisfied, according to Benwood Police Chief Frank Longwell. He said the demolition itself has been estimated at about $3 million.

“Chaklos is being dealt with, but the sad part is the bridge isn’t coming down,” he said. “The metal is not worth what the liens are worth. … It looks like it will stand there until it collapses. The city certainly doesn’t have the funds to take it down completely.”

Longwell said the city’s best chance for demolition would have to come via help from federal or state government, and city leaders do have a case to present to them.

Making matters worse for Benwood officials is the possibility of two separate projects in the works for the Benwood Industrial Park near the bridge could be in doubt.

“Right now that entry near the bridge is the only entry point to get in and out of the industrial park,” Longwell said. “It is a concern to us for future development. That is the case we will make with the feds.”

Dan Guida, who represents Benwood in Bellaire Bridge matters, said it’s hard to predict what sentence Chaklos will receive. He could get probation, but Guida said there will be a push to have Chaklos serve prison time.

“We hope so,” Guida said. “We will be there to argue he should be incarcerated. “We’re glad we’re about finished with this phase. We had to get this over first, so we can move on to the next phase and that’s getting the bridge demolished.”

Calls to Chaklos were not returned Wednesday.

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