Left Behind

Bellefontaine Neighbors residents have lived -- and died -- with asbestos for years. The problem's an open secret, but little has been done.

Then there's Sandra Vierdag. In May 2002, the 42-year-old mother was found to have mesothelioma; by October, she was dead. Vierdag grew up a half-mile from the CertainTeed plant, left the area as an adult for nine months, then moved back into the neighborhood with her husband, this time about two miles from the plant.

In early December, the lawyers who represented Mary Samsel sued CertainTeed on behalf of Sandra's husband. But also named in the lawsuit are almost 100 other defendants, including Eastman Kodak, which, the lawsuit alleged, used asbestos-containing paper. Vierdag worked for Kodak.

Samsel's case was similar, initially filed against about 100 defendants. But many of the companies, including GAF, had bankruptcy protection. But CertainTeed is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Saint-Gobain, a Paris-based industrial conglomerate.

Drew Tucker
Maline Creek flooded in 1993, washing asbestos debris over a large area.
Maline Creek flooded in 1993, washing asbestos debris over a large area.

When asked whether the suit against CertainTeed was fashioned to plumb deep pockets, Lisa La Conte, one of the attorneys representing CertainTeed, says, "It is hard to say if it is a monetary decision. I personally don't know why they sue; I'm not privy to those reasons."

But CertainTeed and its lawyers are familiar with the Simmons Firm and Randy Bono. The Wood River, Illinois, firm has carved out a name for itself in the arena of asbestos litigation, frequently landing multimillion-dollar verdicts against companies. The week after Samsel's case went to trial, Bono received a $5.1 million jury verdict in St. Louis Circuit Court in an unrelated asbestos case.

Samsel's lawyers, Bono, Michael Angelides and Bill Kohlburn, agreed to be interviewed about Samsel's case and recounted her testimony. But through her attorneys, Samsel declined to be interviewed personally.

And at least one witness -- Samsel's father -- contradicted Samsel's testimony, according to CertainTeed's lawyers. They say Leo Mroczkowksi denied taking Mary to the plant when she was a little girl and denied using asbestos in the home on Kilgore. Mroczkowski -- who is now 72 -- did not return telephone messages.

But Michael Straughter, who bought the Mroczkowskis' home, says that after the house was inspected before trial, he had to have asbestos "encapsulated underneath the house and then on my steps."

And he's never received any sort of report about what was found that day.

"No one said anything," he says.

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