Columbia Housing Authority seeks investigation after two die from carbon monoxide

The Columbia Housing Authority is calling for an independent investigation of a public housing complex in the wake of two deaths from gas leaks.

In a Thursday meeting of the authority’s board, Bob Coble, the attorney, told the board’s commissioners that he believes an investigation done by an agency not employed by the city or housing authority must be brought in to find out about the conditions in Allen Benedict Court.

Coble called for the board to vote for “an independent and comprehensive review of everything involved, the deaths and the conditions at Allen Benedict Court.”

On Jan. 17, 61-year-old Calvin Witherspoon Jr. and Derrick Caldwell Roper, 30, were found dead in their Allen Benedict Court apartments from carbon monoxide poisoning.

After a nearly two-hour, closed-door session Thursday, the commission returned with a vote in favor of an “independent and comprehensive investigation of all issues of the Allen Benedict Court tragedy.”

An organization that can do such a probe has yet to be identified, but the authority wants to know what happened, why it happened, and who is responsible, according to Coble.

After the vote for the investigation, commissioner Bobby Gist said, “We want to make sure to pray for the families (of the deceased) and pray for all of you in this room.”

The Thursday meeting drew a crowd of about 50 Columbia Housing Authority residents, including some who used to live in Allen Benedict Court. The housing authority has said residents will not move back into the current Allen Benedict Court buildings.

The crowd, who did not have an opportunity to speak, took the chance to talk to media.

Many in the crowd wanted to express support for authority Director Gilbert Walker.

“Mr. Walker has time for anybody,” said Minnie Webb, who lives in Celia Saxon Homes, another property overseen by the authority that’s next door to Allen Benedict Court.

But others said that the Columbia Housing Authority is not open to their concerns and that they worry that bringing up any issues about where they’ll be living or the conditions of their housing would affect how much the authority would support them.

Geneva Dean lives in Arrington Manor, which the authority runs, where she’s the building president. She said people are intimidated to speak their minds to the authority and that officials barely listen to requests for maintenance much less deeper issues.

“You never know if they got the (maintenance) reports,” Dean said.

Columbia City Councilman Moe Baddourah, who has called for Walker’s resignation, attended the meeting.

“The way you’re going to get accountability is a director change to regain the trust of residents,” Baddourah said.

Baddourah also said he’d be calling for the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate Allen Benedict Court, a call echoed previously by council members Daniel Rickenmann and Ed McDowell.

Coble said the authority will work to make sure the displaced residents are cared for, calling it “the most important thing.”

“Hopefully the authority can continue to operate in a way that gives them (the residents) confidence,” Coble said.