No criminal charges filed in deaths at Allen Benedict Court, Housing Authority cited for 869 violations
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Officials announced they will not file any criminal charges in the deaths of two men at Allen Benedict Court.
Solicitor Byron Gipson, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook, and Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins addressed the media Wednesday morning about their months-long investigation.
Gipson said debris that built up over time caused a blockage in the flue of the furnace in unit J2, which sat in between the two men’s apartments. That blockage did not allow carbon monoxide to ventilate properly, thus seeping into their neighboring apartments and ultimately leading to their death.
Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said it would take a substantial amount of time for that amount of debris to build up and said it is entirely preventable with regular maintenance.
“In my professional opinion, this is completely preventable,” he said.
During the investigation, a third-party inspector inspected every building on the property. In doing so, it found more than 800 violations from 22 different categories of the International Property Maintenance Codes. Those violations ranged from expired fire extinguishers, missing carbon monoxide detectors, exposed wiring to inoperable smoke detectors. In all, 22 citations were issued.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Police Chief Skip Holbrook.
Despite those summons, no criminal charges will be filed.
Jenkins said moving forward, his department will work with inspectors at the housing authority, since it self-inspects. In doing so, Jenkins said his department will ensure proper paperwork and documentation is completed, the inspections are taking place and inspectors know what to look for.
Asked if the city has a contract in place with the housing authority to ensure those things happen, Jenkins said he considers the fact that the complex falls within his jurisdiction, “a contract in itself.”
“You have to understand that death, no matter how tragic, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a criminal charge to follow," Gipson said. "There’s not a criminal negligence statue in South Carolina to charge. With that being said, even so, after we reviewed all the information, the question was whether or not there was probable cause for criminal charges to be brought and we determined -- I determined, looking at those matters, that there is not probable cause for charges to be brought in general sessions court.”
Under South Carolina law, negligence can be found, but evidence to support it must rise to the level of reckless disregard. If it does, it still must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in court.
In civil court, the burden is the preponderance of evidence, leaving it possible the parties outlined in civil suits could still be found liable or negligent in the men’s deaths.
Columbia City Councilman Moe Baddourah has been outspoken about the need for an investigation and accountability since the men were found dead. He said he was disappointed the solicitor’s office was unable to bring criminal charges.
“It’s obvious, if you would have fixed the problem or maintained your properties, you wouldn’t have two dead bodies in your apartments,” he said.
The investigation also revealed poor record related to both tenants and maintenance, with important information often missing from completed paperwork. As a result, investigators struggled to learn about the maintenance history of appliances within the units. It was discovered the furnace found to have a build-up of debris was 30 years old.
Additionally, there was evidence of a lack of training maintenance employees. Officials also said it was discovered one inspector was tasked with inspecting more than 2,300 units for the housing authority every year.
“That’s just impossible,” said Holbrook.
The citations issued will bring the Housing Authority to municipal court, where the case will play out.
The Columbia Housing Authority sent out a press release following the solicitor’s announcement of no criminal charges being sought.
Read the statement below:
Columbia Housing issues this statement in memory of Calvin Witherspoon, Jr., and Derrick Caldwell Roper, who lost their lives as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning on January 17, 2019, at the Allen Benedict Court Public Housing community. Our deepest sympathy is with the Witherspoon and Roper families.
In the time since Derrick Caldwell Roper’s and Calvin Witherspoon, Jr.’s untimely deaths, Columbia Housing has done a number of things to ensure that the January 17th tragedy never happens again. For example—In March four new commissioners-- Anne Sinclair, James Chatfield, Georgia Mjartan, and Kara Simmons-- were appointed to the current Board. The new Board members join returning Commissioners Selena Pickens, George Green, and Ernest Cromartie, III who serves as Commission Chairman. Commissioners are tasked with setting policy for the agency and supporting the agency’s executive leadership team as they implement those policies.
In addition to new Board appointments, Columbia Housing also has new leadership. After successful tenures in Aiken, SC; Toledo, OH; and Greenville, SC—Ivory Williams Mathews was selected to lead Columbia Housing—largely because of her resident-focused philosophy that is rooted in high-staff performance. In the first week of her tenure, Mathews presented a 12-month action plan to address agency challenges and elevate performance at the 85-year old affordable housing agency. Those efforts included four overarching principles: 1) improving service delivery to residents; 2) creating a climate of transparency and accountability; 3) maximizing organizational efficiencies; and 4) increasing community confidence.
Mathews’ efforts were recently recognized by U. S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) who invited her to testify before Congress at the U. S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs in Washington, DC on November 7th. Her testimony in support of Senate Bill 2160 underscored the need for federal law requiring that CO detectors be installed in all public housing units. Her testimony can be read or viewed at www.columbiahousingsc.org.
“We are currently working on a host of things to include: a partnership with the Columbia Fire Department on the implementation of fire safety education programs for our staff and residents”, says Mathews. “We want to empower them with information on fire drills, smoke detectors, fire alarms and much more. Classes have already begun and a full schedule of these events can be found at www.columbiahousingsc.org/fire-education-and-safey-classes. In addition, we are working to improve response time for work orders and improving avenues of communications and accessibility. We’ve already begun the initial phases of conducting comprehensive needs assessments of our entire portfolio of housing units; and we will be introducing a redevelopment plan in the near future to include the demolition of Allen Benedict Court. We are also examining the capacity of each department to ensure maximum performance,” concludes Mathews.
In August, Mathews hired Yvonda Bean as her Chief Operating Officer. A proven leader, Bean has over 20 years of progressive experience in executive leadership with affordable housing agencies in the Palmetto state, as well as in other parts of the country. Most recently, she served as the Executive Director/CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Lafayette (LHA), Louisiana where she transformed the Housing Authority from a U. S. Department Housing & Urban Development (HUD)-supervised Agency to a thriving organization with financial and staff stability.
Then, in October, Cynthia Gore joined Columbia Housing as its Director of Human Resources. Gore has more than 22 years of state government experience, most recently serving as Assistant Human Resources Director with the SC Department of Education and the SC Department of Administration. Gore has notable experience in strategic human resource planning, performance management, federal and state law compliance, policy/procedure development, training development, and management coaching.
‘‘It‘s a new day at Columbia Housing,“ says Commission Chairman Ernest Cromartie, III. ‘‘Ivory is a solid transformative leader. She is transparent with the Board, her follow-through and accountability is unmatched. We are confident in her ability to lead Columbia Housing forward, restore public trust and improve service delivery to our residents.“
Mathews is committed to working with the residents, the Board of Commissioners and Staff, the city of Columbia, and community partners to transform Columbia Housing’s service-delivery and community presence as the agency works to continue to meet the affordable housing needs of some of the area’s most vulnerable citizens.
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