A tragedy on Bratton Street ... could it have been avoided?

nophillips@thestate.comApril 26, 2014 

— Shortly after 10 a.m. on Jan. 13, a city building inspector knocked on the door of a house in Columbia’s Lyon Street neighborhood to tell the owner he had to leave.

The house at 2609 Bratton St. had been condemned for months, and no one was allowed to live there.

But the man inside, 78-year-old Robert Martin, refused to go. He came onto the porch with an old 12-gauge shotgun, sat in a chair and pointed the gun toward his head.

A three-hour standoff followed as neighbors, a family member and police tried to talk Martin into putting down the gun.

Beatrice Miller, Martin’s 81-year-old aunt, was one of the dozens of people outside the Bratton Street home that day.

“I saw him put the gun in his mouth,” Miller said. “I looked right at him.”

Miller didn’t speak as she told the next part of the story. Instead, she showed her hand as if it was a gun and mimicked pulling a trigger.

“It blew off half his head,” she said.

Martin’s death left the neighborhood reeling. It crushed the police negotiators who had been hopeful for a better end. The building inspectors would later join the police for counseling sessions.

In the weeks after the suicide, neighbors questioned what had happened that day. Some believe the police and housing officials were too heavy-handed. Others said the police and other public officials did their best in a terrible situation.

The standoff happened amid the backdrop of the city’s efforts to rid neighborhoods of dilapidated houses. City Council members have backed the push, saying rundown houses lead to increased crime and discourage economic development.

But, in the wake of Martin’s death, no city department has yet reviewed what police and codes enforcement workers did that day or in the days leading up to it, so that at the very least, it might not happen again.

Martin lived just three doors down from what is considered one of the worst intersections in Columbia when it comes to crime and poverty – King and Bratton streets. There, gang graffiti is spray-painted on stop signs, and open drug deals take place on the corner.

After hearing of the case, Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said city housing officials need to re-evaluate their protocol for dealing with vulnerable adults.

“It seems like somebody failed him,” she said.

Neighborhood icon

The house at 2609 Bratton was built in 1930. Martin inherited it from his mother, who died in 1992, Miller said.

An Air Force veteran, Martin had few remaining family members and had lived alone for years.

He and his junk-filled yard were neighborhood icons.

He always was puttering around, working on trucks and various pieces of equipment, several neighbors said.

Martin fixed the grownups’ broken cars and the children’s broken bicycles. He could repair plumbing and other minor household breaks.

“I don’t care if it was a good day or if it was a bad day, everybody loved Mr. Bobby,” said Lindsey Ellis, who lives next door with her mother and her two toddler daughters.

Martin drank diet soft drinks. He played the lottery. He smoked Pall Mall cigarettes. And he enjoyed roaming flea markets in search of bargains.

Martin would ride around Columbia’s neighborhoods to rummage through roadside trash piles, said Astrid Haynes, who lives in an apartment across the street, and said she is related to Martin.

“If it had the smallest part that might work, he would keep it,” she said.

The junk filled the back yard, spilled down the driveway and covered the front porch and yard.

Stoves, refrigerators, dishwashers, toilets. Broken televisions, vacuums, lawnmowers. Name it, and there would be at least one of it in the yard.

“He could have had an appliance store if everything worked,” Haynes said.

Inside, conditions were worse. But few people knew it.

Miller, a former school cook, would fix plates for Martin when she made her big Sunday dinners. He always would be outside when she delivered the food. He never invited her in, she said.

It is almost impossible to describe just how big the mess had become inside Martin’s house.

Papers, empty soup and soda cans, shoes, clothes and other garbage were piled so high that no floor space was visible. Chairs were piled on boxes, which were piled on more furniture, according to pictures taken by city officials and obtained by The State newspaper.

City housing inspectors had a history with Martin, according to several people interviewed for this story.

But the city began putting pressure on Martin to clean his property in April 2013, according to records from the city’s Planning and Development Services Department.

Violations pile up

Housing inspector Stacy Harris had seen the mess at Martin’s house while driving through the neighborhood, Hatcher said.

Martin was “a hoarder, so we could actually see the accumulation of stuff on the outside, ” Hatcher said.

Martin was given two “written notices of violation” on April 23, 2013.

One cited Martin for having indoor furniture and appliances in his yard. The other was an order to repair or remove the sheds in the backyard.

The orders, signed by Harris, gave Martin seven days to clean up the furniture and appliances and 20 days to take care of the shacks.

Martin also received a letter on April 23 telling him that his house was in violation of the city’s ordinances governing property maintenance. He was given 30 days to correct the problems or the city would take action.

In June, the city acted.

Six city employees descended on Martin’s property with two dump trucks and other heavy equipment.

“It’s not a regular thing for the city to clean up someone’s lot,” Hatcher said. “It has to be pretty bad. We had a hard time even getting back there to get everything removed.”

They spent more than seven hours clearing the property.

The city billed Martin $3,068.51 for the cleanup. When he did not pay, the city put a lien on his house.

Things would only get worse for Martin.

While city workers were cleaning the yard, they discovered a temporary utility pole with multiple electrical cords running across the ground and into the house, Hatcher said. Regular electricity had been cut off.

That led to another violation. This time, though, it was serious enough that the city issued an emergency order to vacate because it was a fire hazard.

On June 12, Martin was given an emergency order to vacate the structure, according to documents. He had 24 hours to leave or he would face arrest, the order said.

City housing inspectors keep a list of resources for people who are being ordered to vacate a house, Hatcher said. It refers people to the United Way, various agencies that serve the homeless and programs that assist with home repairs.

However, Martin told housing inspectors he had somewhere else to stay so he never received the list, Hatcher said.

Martin spent some nights with other people, Haynes said.

But he would not stay away from his home.

On Jan. 9, housing inspectors came again. This time, Martin was cited for unsanitary conditions inside the house.

A week later, their return triggered the standoff.

A taxing standoff

It was Haynes – who lives across the street – who called city officials Jan. 13 when she noticed Martin had returned.

Martin was in poor health, she said. He had fought a bout with cancer and had diabetes and high blood pressure. If the house caught fire, Martin would not have been able to get out. Or, if he had needed an ambulance, rescue workers would not have been able to get inside, Haynes said.

She had hoped to get him out of the house one more time so others could figure out a way to clean the place.

“I knew I was going to get fussed at, but at the end of the day I knew he wouldn’t have been able to stay mad at me,” Haynes said.

What she didn’t expect, though, was for Martin to come outside with a shotgun.

Two building inspectors, Stacy Harris and James Bolin, called around 10 a.m. for a Columbia police officer to meet them at the house. It is the planning services department’s policy that two inspectors and a police officer go to the scene when someone is being ordered to vacate, Hatcher said.

A second officer, who had been at the house the prior week, also was called. By the time he arrived, Martin was sitting in a chair on the front porch with the shotgun’s butt resting on the ground and the barrel pointing at his head.

Martin told officers that he felt worthless and wanted to die, according to the Columbia Police Department’s incident report.

The two officers followed their police training and took cover behind a squad car parked in front of Martin’s house. They called for backup.

Pretty soon, the entire 2600 block of Bratton Street was blocked off and surrounded by police. The department’s hostage and crisis negotiations team and the SWAT team were deployed.

Lt. George Drafts, who commands the negotiations team, said the patrol officers were following the protocol that is necessary when someone has a loaded gun in public.

The negotiations team’s goal is to diffuse the situation. The SWAT team’s purpose to keep a sniper positioned on the gunman and other police available to swarm if necessary.

“There’s always the possibility someone can wield the gun and take someone else with them,” Drafts said.

Drafts’ team of seven set up inside their truck, out of site of Martin. Drafts selected a primary negotiator, and the other five team members began collecting information from the first officers on the scene, the housing inspectors, neighbors and family – everyone who was still standing around.

The primary negotiator, whom Drafts declined to name, was able to reach Martin on Martin’s cellphone.

Crisis negotiators try to build a rapport with their subjects. They identify “hooks and buttons.” Hooks are the things that develop a positive connection, such as family, pets or hobbies. Buttons are the things that set off a person already in distress, Drafts said.

Sometimes, hooks and buttons are the same things.

In Martin’s case, he had problems with his house, his health and his family, most of whom were gone, Drafts said.

“With Mr. Martin, it was really difficult to to know,” Drafts said. “Mr. Martin had more than one issue going on. To some degree, the whole issue surrounding the house was a button. It was also a hook. It went from one extreme to the next.”

Martin would not always answer his phone when the police negotiators called.

“He was willing to talk to us on his terms and when he wanted to talk,” Drafts said.

Other people were calling the cellphone, too.

Miller, who had been called to the scene, tried to talk her nephew into putting down the gun.

“He said, ‘They want to take my mother’s house. If that happens, I’d just rather die,’” Miller said. “I said, ‘Robert, homes and cars are just something you use while you’re down here.’”

As the standoff continued, people gathered outside the police barricades to see what was happening.

Ellis, who was peeking through the blinds of her house next door, said a sniper was positioned in her front yard. She also said a team of officers with guns at the ready were making their way through Martin’s backyard.

After more than three hours, Martin would no longer answer the phone.

At 1:50 p.m., Martin pulled the trigger.

“When I heard that little dud of a firecracker sound, my heart just broke,” Haynes said.

Haynes said she could see the horror on everyone’s faces.

“They saw my hurt, and I saw their hurt,” she said. “None of them wanted it to end like that.”

Outcome questioned

Months later, people involved with Martin and his situation still are trying to come to terms with what happened.

The police negotiators attended counseling sessions, which is routine for officers involved in a fatal shooting. The housing inspectors joined them.

Negotiations become personal, Drafts said. If a negotiator fails, he or she spends weeks replaying the event as they try to figure out what else could have been done, he said.

In Martin’s case, Drafts is not sure if another outcome could have been possible.

“In our line of business, there’s always a need to want to be better,” he said. “Some things are pre-planned, so no matter what you say the end is going to be the end.”

Haynes casts no blame on the city.

“I don’t care what anyone says,” she said. “I was there from the moment it began to the moment it ended. The city did their job.”

She wishes people, including housing inspectors, had a better understanding of hoarders and how to deal with them.

“You have to find out what is causing them to hold on to those objects,” she said.

Haynes also said she has borne some of the blame and anger from neighbors. She cried when she retold the story of that day.

“When you know you try to do the right thing and, at the end of the day a family member pulls the trigger and takes their own life ... ,” she said. “I didn’t know what hurt was.”

Ellis, who had known Martin since she was a little girl, said the city should have left Martin alone. Rather than create a standoff, the officers and inspectors could have walked away. She believes Martin would have put down his gun.

“Bobby would be alive today if the city didn’t go in so head strong,” she said. “He wasn’t bothering anybody. He was doing exactly what he wanted to do. Everybody should have just let him be.”

But Drafts said that would have been irresponsible.

“Fortunately, we don’t operate that way, nor can we,” he said. “The liability would be on us if he shot someone. We couldn’t walk away.”

City housing officials also believe they did all they could. They followed city ordinances and their standard procedures for working with people who have housing violations, said Hatcher and his boss, Krista Hampton, the city’s director of development and planning services.

“We gave ample, ample opportunities to Mr. Martin,” Hatcher said. “We had been as patient as we could with Mr. Martin.”

He pointed out that Martin had a caseworker from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a resource many do not have.

“We have an obligation to make sure they live in safe conditions,” he said. “We can’t control how they deal with it.”

When asked if they needed to review policies or do more to help people in difficult situations, Hatcher and Hampton said their system works. They can provide lists of resources to those who need help.

“Very rarely do we have to tell somebody they have to move out of their house,” Hampton said. “Some people refuse assistance even if it is free. All we can do is offer it to them.”

However, Berkowitz said if housing officials want to make sure people are safe, they can’t just hand them lists of resources and expect them to follow through.

“There were real signals there that someone was in trouble,” she said.

Housing officials could be cross-trained to recognize when they are dealing with someone who may have mental health issues or who may be too old or too sick to take care of themselves.

The S.C. Department of Social Services works with vulnerable adults, and someone could have called that agency for help, she said.

“I know they’re not social workers,” she said of the inspectors. But, ‘they’re not only acting in the city’s best interests. I’m sure they wanted to protect him as well.”

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