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Former councilman asks AG office to review Allen Benedict Court investigation findings

The apartments are set to be demolished in April.
Calvin Witherspoon (L) and Derrick Roper (R) were both found dead in their apartments on Jan....
Calvin Witherspoon (L) and Derrick Roper (R) were both found dead in their apartments on Jan. 17, 2019. (Source: Family photos)
Updated: Jan. 16, 2020 at 5:32 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - It was just about a year ago when two men were found dead inside their Allen Benedict Court apartments from carbon monoxide poisoning.

After months of investigating what happened, Fifth Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson announced in November no criminal charges would be filed in the deaths of Calvin Witherspoon Jr. and Derrick Roper.

Now, WIS has learned a former Columbia city councilman requested the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office review the findings of the investigation into the Columbia Housing Authority, which owned the apartments.

The investigation into the men’s deaths spanned months and involved dozens of interviews on the local, state and federal level.

Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said he believes the two men’s deaths were “completely preventable” with routine maintenance.

While no criminal charges were filed, the housing authority is facing 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 and exposed wiring, to inoperable smoke detectors. In all, 22 citations were issued.

The apartments are set to be demolished in April.

Former Councilman Moe Baddourah sent the letter to Attorney General Alan Wilson in late December (before his term was over), requesting a time to meet with Wilson to discuss the situation further.

He has not received a response.

In his letter, Baddourah alleges the lack of criminal charges stems from a game of “politics.”

He said, in part, “The fact is inescapable. Gross negligence by the Authority--whether due to incompetence, laziness, politics, or the desire to keep the money in the bank--money that was there to right these wrongs--caused these deaths--and those dead are the very residents the Authority is supposed to be helping. After many months, the Solicitor and others called a press conference to say that an investigation found no criminally punishable conduct. The investigation’s results have not been made available to me, as a member of City Council who has every right, even an obligation, to review those results, despite numerous requests.”

The letter goes on to request clarification on several comments made by Gipson, who said a criminal negligence statute in South Carolina does not exist.

“As Attorney General, I feel certain you know this is simply not true. The statute is the one making involuntary manslaughter a crime. In fact, for your ready reference, is: SC Code § 16-3-60 (2013). It states clearly that ‘[w]ith regard to the crime of involuntary manslaughter, criminal negligence is defined as the reckless disregard of the safety of others. A person charged with the crime of involuntary manslaughter may be convicted only upon a showing of criminal negligence as defined in this section. A person convicted of involuntary manslaughter must be imprisoned not more than five years.’”

Baddourah argues “being poor should not be a death sentence” and goes on to say the deaths of the two men are the result of “negligence of an organization entrusted to protect them and provide them with safe and decent living conditions.”

At the end of the letter, he requests a member of the attorney general’s office “assess this situation and report back...as to whether the law was violated and, if so, whether (the AG) office will bring to justice those who violated it.”

Again, Baddourah has yet to receive a response from the attorney general.

December 26, 2019

The Honorable Alan Wilson, Attorney General

The State of South Carolina

Post Office Box 11549

Columbia, SC 29211

Dear General Wilson:

As my term as a Columbia City Council Member draws to a close, it is my intention to serve the remainder of that time working for the citizens who elected me to serve them for that term. Accordingly, I am writing to request a meeting with you to discuss a matter that I believe is important enough to ask for a few minutes of your time. After we meet, you may decide more of your time, or that of a member of your staff, should be devoted to this.

My concern is that under my watch, as you must be aware, the Columbia Housing Authority allowed conditions to deteriorate to the point that, despite numerous complaints from residents about smelling gas and the complaints of these people seem to have been ignored. Two people died. Many others became ill. All who remained at Allen Benedict Court were relocated. These conditions did not develop overnight. When two lives were ultimately lost by this inaction, in spite of these numerous, documented reports of the residents to the Authority, the unsafe, substandard living conditions could no longer be ignored. Media attention and public scrutiny resulted. Then, the Authority hid records and denied access to the media, have stonewalled, it seems, legitimate attempts to investigate the matter, and it seems now will escape any sort of consequences for their failure to provide safe housing to the poor. Their voices were not heard, I believe, because they are poor, they have no political clout, and I also believe, because the Columbia Housing Authority was at the very least grossly negligent in performing their mission. I believe this conduct to be inexcusable. Apparently, because the Housing Authority and others how should be held responsible do have connections, do have political clout, and get favors from friends in high places, their conduct has been “excused.”

The fact is inescapable. Gross negligence by the Authority--whether due to incompetence, laziness, politics, or the desire to keep the money in the bank--money that was there to right these wrongs--caused these deaths--and those dead are the very residents the Authority is supposed to be helping.

After many months, the Solicitor and others called a press conference to say that an investigation found no criminally punishable conduct. The investigation’s results have not been made available to me, as a member of City Council who has every right, even an obligation, to review those results, despite numerous requests.

It seems the attorney hired by the Authority (with money that could have been used to prevent these deaths but is now allocated to legal fees) has been able to direct the investigation. I hope you will agree that in any criminal investigation, the attorney for the subject(s) under investigation should not also direct it.

Without explanation, evidence, or documentation as to what was done to investigate these deaths, despite my requests, the Solicitor announced at this press conference something to the effect that (to paraphrase) there is no criminal negligence statute in South Carolina.

As Attorney General, I feel certain you know this is simply not true. The statute is the one making involuntary manslaughter a crime. In fact, for your ready reference, is: SC Code § 16-3-60 (2013). It states clearly that “[w]ith regard to the crime of involuntary manslaughter, criminal negligence is defined as the reckless disregard of the safety of others. A person charged with the crime of involuntary manslaughter may be convicted only upon a showing of criminal negligence as defined in this section. A person convicted of involuntary manslaughter must be imprisoned not more than five years. (Emphasis added.)

From all the reports that issued and discussed with the Columbia Police Chief the investigation concluded that the deaths of Mr. Roper and Mr. Weatherspoon were a result of carbon monoxide poising from gas leak in the appliances and this was due to gross negligence and a lack of proper supervision by “leadership” on the part of the Columbia Housing Authority.

The families who lost their loved ones, the citizens of Columbia, and most of all the two men whose deaths could have been prevented all deserve justice.

As many families around the city and our great state celebrate this Holiday season and spend time with our loved ones, I can not help but to think of, and mourn the losses of two families who lost their loved ones. Being poor should not be a death sentence. However, these lives were lost due to the negligence of an organization entrusted to protect them and provide them with a safe and descent living conditions. If these deaths are simply ignored, then I have no reason to believe that the people who rely on the Housing Authority because they have no other choice will continue to be ignored when they notify the Housing Authority of hazardous, dangerous, and substandard living conditions.

I believe, General Wilson, that this is an opportunity to change for the better the way our poor are treated, the way our Housing Authority does (or fails to do) its job, and to hold those responsible for these horrible, deadly living conditions responsible.

Before writing this to seek your help, I reached out for the advise and opinions from some attorneys about this matter. I got the same answer from them all: South Carolina does have a “criminal negligence” statute, criminal charges should be brought in this case, and that the Solicitor simply fails to follow the law by explaining that no criminal charges will be brought in this case because no law was broken.

Therefore, I request respectfully that you assign a member of your office to assess this situation and report back to you as to whether the law was violated and, if so, whether your office will bring to justice those who violated it. The families of Mr. Weatherspoon and Mr. Roper deserved no less, and I trust your office to investigate impartially and take the actions you deem appropriate.

I hope this letter finds you and your family well during this Holiday season. I thank you for your consideration. If you have any questions, of (sic) if you would grant me a short meeting so I might answer some questions you may have, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Moe Baddourah, Member

Columbia City Council

On Thursday, the Columbia Housing Authority released its first episode of a monthly podcast to provide residents with updates moving forward.

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