There will not be criminal charges in connection with the January carbon monoxide related deaths of two men at Columbia's Allen Benedict Court housing projects.
On Nov. 27, Fifth Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson said there was not probable cause to bring criminal charges in the case. However, the Columbia Police Department and its code enforcement arm reportedly found hundreds of violations at the now-closed apartment complex, and those matters will be handled in municipal court.
"I have reviewed the entire investigative file," Gipson said at a Nov. 27 news conference. "I've had multiple meetings with [Columbia Police] Chief [Skip] Holbrook, multiple meetings with [Columbia Fire] Chief [Aubrey] Jenkins, with SLED and with code enforcement. We've also walked the property. I've specifically walked into [apartments where the victims died]. We've inspected the area, looked at the area, to get an idea of what happened, how it happened and when it happened, and what happened with that carbon monoxide.
"After reviewing all of those factors, it is my determination, and my legal opinion, that probable cause does not exist to pursue criminal matters in general sessions court. Simply said, the Fifth Circuit Solicitor's Office will not be pursuing criminal charges in this matter."
There are multiple lawsuits filed against the Columbia Housing Authority, which owns Allen Benedict Court. Gipson stressed on Wednesday that those matters will play out in civil court.
On Jan. 17, the bodies of two men — Calvin Witherspoon, 61, and Derrick Roper, 30 — were found in separate apartments at the complex. The two men died from carbon monoxide poisoning as the result of gas leaks. Authorities subsequently evacuated the 411 people who lived there to area hotels, and later closed down the apartments. Those individuals were placed in permanent housing.
The Columbia Police Department — with help from the Columbia Fire Department, State Law Enforcement Division, the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s Office and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Office of the Inspector General — launched an investigation into the incident at Allen Benedict Court.
In late February, Housing Authority Executive Director Gilbert Walker announced he’d be retiring in June. He had been with the authority for half a century and had been its director for two decades. Four new Columbia Housing Authority board members also were appointed after the gas leak incident, and an interim director was hired.
In a Nov. 27 statement, the Housing Authority says it is taking steps to "ensure that the January 17th tragedy never happens again." The statement touts the authority's new leadership and a "partnership with the Columbia Fire Department on the implementation of fire safety education programs for our staff and residents.”
Gipson noted that the events at Allen Benedict Court were tragic.
"What has happened here at Allen Benedict Court is indeed a tragedy," Gipson said. "My heart goes out to the families of Mr. Witherspoon and Mr. Roper."
The Columbia Housing Authority will be cited in Columbia municipal court on a number of infractions, per Gipson, including a failure to have carbon monoxide detectors at Allen Benedict Court, as well as a failure to have working smoke and fire detectors, and not having up-to-date fire extinguishers.
Gipson shared a bit of detail as to exactly how Witherspoon and Roper died, noting that there was debris in the heating system in their building — building J — at the apartment complex. That debris caused a blockage that prevented carbon monoxide from being properly vented.
Holbrook said the police department's investigation found a host of issues at Allen Benedict Court, including "extremely poor record-keeping," poorly filled-out inspection forms, a lack of preventative maintenance being done on appliances, and a lack of training of staff in regard to preventative maintenance of appliances.
Holbrook said the police department served 22 summons on the Columbia Housing Authority on Nov. 25, and they address 869 violations of the International Property Maintenance Code that the police found during an inspection of Allen Benedict Court. Those matters will be handled in city court. There is a Jan. 22 court date set for that.
"The deaths of Derrick Roper and Calvin Witherspoon have not been forgotten," Holbrook said. "Nor has how this event has caused disruptions in the lives of several hundred ABC residents who were permanently displaced."