AP NEWS

No criminal charges in public housing poisoning deaths of 2

November 27, 2019 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — No criminal charges will be filed in the carbon monoxide deaths of two people at a Columbia public housing complex in part because South Carolina lacks a criminal negligence law, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

The men died in January in separate apartments in the same building at the complex because debris in a 30-year-old heater blocked poisonous gas generated by creating the heat from escaping out of the building, Solicitor Byron Gipson said at a news conference.

Inspectors said the problem could have been easily found and fixed. But Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said the Housing Authority let its maintenance program disintegrate as employees retired or left.

“A single inspector was tasked with inspecting 2,360 units for public housing each year. And that’s just simply impossible,” Holbrook said.

Code inspectors who carefully checked each of the 244 units at the 80-year-old Allen Benedict Court complex after the deaths found 869 code violations. “Old appliances, old heaters, just poor maintenance in general,” Holbrook said.

Those were all filed this week in Columbia Municipal Court and the Housing Authority will have to answer in January, the police chief said.

Authorities said earlier this year many apartments lacked working smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers.

Fire inspectors in the hours after the bodies of Calvin Witherspoon Jr., 62, and Derrick Roper, 31, were found ordered all of the more than 400 residents out of the housing complex after finding a number of other gas leaks and other life-threatening problems. They have never moved back.

Residents would later tell investigators they often smelled gas odors but didn’t report them.

“They thought it was just a way of life — what they had been smelling,” Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said.

Holbrook said the police investigation found incomplete record keeping, but no evidence of Allen Benedict Court residents being retaliated against or kicked out for reporting problems or any evidence of record shredding or any other attempt to cover up problems.

Gipson said he understood the pain of the families of the dead men, but he had to follow South Carolina law.

“Death, no matter how tragic, doesn’t necessarily mean there is a criminal charge to follow,” Gipson said. “There is not a criminal negligence statue in South Carolina.”

At the time of the deaths, the Columbia Housing Authority said in its annual report it was seeking money to demolish and renovate the apartments at the Allen Benedict Court. Built in 1939, the complex was the third-oldest public housing in the country, authority Executive Director Gilbert Walker said.

The Housing Authority issued a statement after the Tuesday news conference pointing out the majority of its seven-member board changed after the deaths and they hired Ivory Mathews as its new leader.

In recent months, the authority worked with Columbia firefighters on safety classes for residents. In the longer term, the agency is working on a review of all its units and the demolition and redevelopment of Allen Benedict Court, Mathews said in the statement.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP