Columbia’s Allen Benedict Court Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

In Part II of the Allen Benedict Carbon monoxide poisoning series, we continue the saga of CO related deaths in Columbia South Carolina.

By Rebecca Martin

In the previous blog, we covered the history of the public housing project known as Allen Benedict Court, which was located in Columbia, South Carolina. The 80-year-old building was built in 1940 as a companion low-income housing development to the predominantly White development known as Gonzales Gardens, in order to serve the Black community.  And we looked at the financial and social factors which led to its fall into disrepair and neglect. From the recession to lack of opportunities for upward mobility, the issues surrounding the deterioration of Allen Benedict Court became a Black problem that few lawmakers cared to address.

Allen Benedict Court apartment CO deaths.

What was once a vibrant black community at the Allen Benedict Court is now nothing more than empty field because the Columbia Housing Authority’s failure to prevent it from becoming a carbon monoxide death zone.

In 2018, James Chapman became increasing ill as pleas to address serious issues such as ongoing gas leaks were ignored by the Columbia Housing Authority. The CHA was increasingly unable to provide the types of services and improvements necessary to ensure the well-being and comfort of public housing residents even though numerous responses by the fire department to Allen Benedict Court had been recorded in 2018. James Chapman eventually lost his life, ostensibly due to poor health, and later determined to be directly related to the gas leaks and other conditions present at the complex.

Six months after Chapman’s death, two more men would succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning in their apartments and pronounced dead at the scene.

Allen Benedict Court CO Fatalities

On January 17, 2019, 61-year-old Calvin Witherspoon, Jr., 30-year-old Derrick Caldwell were found dead in their respective apartments. The coroner determined that the cause of death was carbon monoxide. The Columbia Fire Department, under the leadership of Chief Aubrey Jenkins, discovered numerous gas leaks throughout the complex and by the next day had ordered that the remaining 411 residents be evacuated. Among the nearly two dozen violations found were carbon monoxide, gas, cyanide, missing smoke alarms, charred closets where hot water heaters were located, electrical system hazards, plumbing system hazards and numerous vermin infestations

Jenkins called the conditions “severe and lethal” and an “imminent threat to human life.”

“One thing that one resident did say they thought that was a way of life, smelling what they were smelling, they didn’t know,” Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said.“

Additional investigators had been called in to assist from the Columbia Police Department, City of Columbia Code enforcement and the HUD office of Inspector General. When they were finished a total of 869 violations had been documented. The Columbia Police Department initially served 22 criminal summonses to the Columbia Housing Authority. The potential fines which would accompany such summons would amount to a total of $10,340 and that was the maximum that could be recovered from those criminal proceedings. Additional summons was filed in the days that followed. A trial was scheduled.

No Probable Cause Found

Officials found no probable cause to pursue criminal charges.

“Fifth Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook and Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins presented their findings from a months-long investigation into the January 17, 2019, deaths at Allen Benedict Court in Columbia.”…  ”It was Gipson’s legal opinion that probable cause does not exist to pursue criminal charges in general sessions court. He said that his opinion was not meant to be a comment on pending cases or civil liability cases, those decisions should come later.”

But Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said the tragedy had not been forgotten. On the day the two men died, two other residents were transported to the hospital to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. The inspectors determined that the cause was a debris blockage in the 30-year-old furnace vent. Incomplete maintenance records were a contributing factor.

“Holbrook said that ‘people need to take care of their tenants and understand they are responsible for what happens to them on their properties.’ He reiterated that the loss of life has not been forgotten and that there should be a “dramatic change of culture” within the Columbia Housing Authority so that something like this should not happen again.”

Changes were made in some of the leadership positions following the two deaths.

“”In the time since Derrick Caldwell Roper’s and Calvin Witherspoon, Jr.’s untimely deaths, Columbia Housing has done a number of things to ensure that the January 17th tragedy never happens again.”

The statement goes on to list changes on the Board of Commissioners, the appointment of Ivory Matthews as the leader of Columbia Housing (replacing Gilbert Walker), and a new Chief Operating Officer’

Civil suits ensued and a timeline of events is available at

Some of the noteworthy events in January 2019 on that timeline are as follows:

  • January 17 – Gas leak investigation continues after 2 found dead at Columbia apartments, victims identified
  • January 18 – Officials close apartment complex in Columbia due to gas leaks after 2 found dead
  • January 23 – Work orders reveal complaints over gas leaks and odors
  • January 24 – Columbia councilman: ‘Resignations are in order’ in Allen Benedict Court apartments ‘tragedy’
  • January 24 – Conditions of Allen Benedict Court apartments made ‘a clear and imminent threat’ to residents, fire chief’s letter says
  • January 25 – CHA is in violation of International Fire Code, Columbia Fire officials say
  • January 25 – Tenants file lawsuit against Columbia Housing Authority for breach of contract, negligence
  • January 30 – ‘What do you want me to say?’ CHA commissioner says when asked if board had spoken about the deaths, displacements
  • January 30 – Columbia councilman: ‘I support 1,000 percent requesting’ SLED, FBI investigation on ‘negligence’ at Allen Benedict apartments
  • January 31 – Doctors warn residents of long-term effects from possible exposure to the ‘Quiet Killer’
  • January 31 – CHA board chairman says this tragedy is result of ‘bad weather,’ not about housing authority.

Timeline for Allen Benedict Court CO Poisoning

There is an interactive timeline available at which gives the entire sequence of events.

In 2021, Allen Benedict Court was demolished. A year later a new plan was released for the property. The plan included senior, multi-family and workforce housing with 400 units planned. In the meantime, the Housing Authority has been collecting stores and memories from former residents through The Allen Benedict Court Forever in my Heart campaign.

In January of 2023, the Federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit over Allen Benedict Court brought by the daughter of one of the men who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in January 2019.

“Danielle Washington alleged facts that ‘shock the conscience: a public housing authority’s deliberate indifference to a risk of harm that threatened numerous families living in low-income housing,’ the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said Thursday. It revived her civil rights lawsuit, saying she’d adequately pleaded that the housing authority recognized the risk posed by carbon monoxide poisoning and acted inappropriately in light of that risk.”

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