Columbia leaders consider seeking criminal investigation into Allen Benedict Court

After two men were found dead and evidence of widespread gas leaks and poor living conditions revealed at a Columbia public housing complex, city leaders are considering asking for a criminal investigation.

Columbia City Council could call on the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate the deaths and management at Allen Benedict Court apartments, Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said.

“There needs to be an independent investigation,” Rickenmann said. “Clearly, there was negligence. We need to find out where it stems from, who knew, now that we’ve had the autopsies and the investigative part from the fire department, building (inspections) and everything else.”

The question of possible criminal negligence is being raised after the deaths of 61-year-old Calvin Witherspoon and 30-year-old Derrick Caldwell Roper. Both were found dead in separate apartments at Allen Benedict on Jan. 17. Both died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by gas leaks in the apartments, officials have said.

After the deaths, the Columbia fire department discovered gas leaks in dozens of apartments, some of them with “severe and lethal” levels of carbon monoxide, along with numerous other examples of poor living conditions. As a result, 411 people have been ousted from their homes and told they’ll never be able to live there again. The Columbia Housing Authority has helped provide them temporary shelter, and community groups have offered other items for assistance.

Rickenmann said the question of a criminal investigation likely will be raised at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and he expects the majority of council members will support making a request to SLED.

“It’s a public safety issue,” Rickenmann said. “The buck stops at a certain point, and ... what I really want to know is where does it stop. Does it stop at (Columbia Housing Authority director Gilbert Walker)? Was the board aware of all these issues? I think we need to know that.”

Councilman Ed McDowell, who represents the area surrounding Allen Benedict Court, said he would support calling on SLED for an investigation.

“It has been a horrific time,” McDowell said. “Of course, I think our city leadership and police and fire, they’ve done a good job in answering and investigating this whole thing. It would probably be to our advantage and to the community and the city’s advantage to have that (SLED) investigation.”

SLED, the statewide police force, often is asked to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing involving public agencies.

If asked, SLED will consider the request to investigate Allen Benedict Court and the Columbia Housing Authority, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said. The agency would move forward with an investigation only if it determines there is a possible criminal element at play, Berry said. Violations of administrative policy, which are not criminal, do not fall under SLED’s purview.

Outside of a criminal investigation, two Allen Benedict residents have filed a civil lawsuit against the Columbia Housing Authority, alleging negligence and “unfit and unsafe living conditions.”

Another Columbia councilman, Moe Baddourah, has called for the director of the Columbia Housing Authority, Gilbert Walker, to resign, or for the Housing Authority’s board of directors to remove Walker from his position.

Baddourah also said he would support asking SLED to open an investigation.

“I support any kind of investigation to make somebody accountable for what happened,” Baddourah said. “Why stop at SLED? It’s federal money; let’s get the FBI in there. The truth has to come out.”

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Sarah Ellis has reported on Columbia and Richland County since 2014. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.