COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It’s been almost four weeks since two men were found dead inside their Columbia apartments, prompting a massive investigation of the Columbia Housing Authority.
30-year-old Derrick Roper and 61-year-old Calvin Witherspoon Jr. died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning according to the Richland County Coroner. The Columbia Fire Department found levels of gas and carbon monoxide within all of the buildings at Allen Benedict Court apartments during its full inspection on Jan. 18.
Residents have been displaced ever since and continue to try to secure permanent housing, as the Columbia Housing Authority deemed the property unlivable and said it does not make financial sense to make repairs to the property. The 26-building complex is the third oldest public housing complex in the nation.
Last week, the Office of the Inspector General visited Columbia to tour the property and speak with officials with the Columbia Police Department about the investigation. SLED along with the 5th circuit solicitor’s office is aiding in the investigation.
Since the tragedy, four lawsuits have been filed against the housing authority, two class-action suits, a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the Roper estate and a personal injury suit. Two of the housing authority’s board of commissioners have resigned from their post, Jennifer Rubin and Bessie Watson. The city of Columbia has begun advertising three vacancies on the board to include Rubin, Watson and another board member who’s term is soon expiring.
The housing authority said it is unsure what the future holds for the property after learning it did not make the short list of finalists for a $30 million federal grant to demolish and rebuild the property.
Executive Director Gilbert Walker told board members he was not aware of the changes to International Fire Code in 2015 that require carbon monoxide detectors in any home with a fuel-burning appliance. He went on to say during HUD’s most recent inspection of the property in 2017, the agency made no mention of carbon monoxide detectors.
Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins took exception to Walker’s comments.
“I find it fascinating that you wouldn’t know that you need carbon monoxide detectors if you’re using gas-laden products, to me it’s a no brainer,” Jenkins said.
Within the authority’s administrative plan, it outlines a section titled “Life-Threatening Conditions.” Included within that section are eight violations, including missing or inoperable carbon monoxide detectors, that are also identified in the Columbia Fire Department’s letter to CHA after its inspection of the property.
Further, a 2017 financial audit of the housing authority found a $3,000,000 deficit and repeated occurrences of miscalculations of tenant income, utilities, and rent. It also found violations made several years in a row of failing to fix non-working smoke detectors.
The Columbia Housing Authority Board of Commissioners is expected to meet this week to discuss the company to handle its independent investigation of Allen Benedict Court apartments.