The Investigators: Judgment Day

By Anna Marie Hartman - bio | email | Twitter | Facebook

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - They're two women who share a common bond: a horrific day, when Kathy Ford lost her son Jermaine, and Lisa Clements lost her daughter Keisha.

On July 21, 2002, the children were among four victims inside a van who were killed when the wall of the Greater Hyde Park Church collapsed on them as they were leaving Sunday Services.

Clements and Ford rushed to the scene.

"I told them, 'Please let me through, let me please just hold his warm body, one more time,'" Ford said. "They wouldn't."

For Clements and Ford, justice has been slow.  Three others were injured that day, and since then, the families of all seven victims have been entangled in a lawsuit against the City of Memphis. The victims' families hold the city responsible for what happened, saying in 2001, a city inspector ordered the owners of the church to make repairs under the city's Anti-Neglect Ordinance.

"He saw the danger at this church the moment he came on, and it's in his report. There's a substantial shift in the wall," attorney Shannon Elsea said.

But attorneys say after the order was issued, the inspector failed to routinely examine the integrity of the building. Instead, church services continued until 18 months later, when the roof caved in after several days of rain.

"I mean it totally ripped everything away from me," Ford said.

City Inspector Anthony Newson was issued a disciplinary report two months after the disaster.  Supervisors called him "incompetent, inefficient and unprofessional," and said he failed at "enforcing the city's anti neglect ordinance," conducting "careful and timely inspections of the structure," and "following up on the repairs that were being made by the owner".

His punishment: a four hour suspension, and a $72.36 dock in pay.

"You can't put money on someone's life," Clements said.

Attorneys say in subsequent court hearings, the city has blamed the collapse on roofers who were hired by the church, and the case has been delayed.  But attempts by Action News 5 to reach city attorney Elbert Jefferson were ignored.

Today, an empty field is all that's left where the church once stood, much like the emptiness shared by these two mothers.

"They need to put themselves in our position, just one day," Ford said.

A hearing in the case was set for Monday, but the city attorney failed to show up for court.  Ultimately, it was the responsibility of the church owner to get the building in compliance with city code.  But attorneys say once city inspectors stepped in to require the changes, it became the city's responsibility to check on the property monthly.

Friends and family of those killed in the church collapse will hold a candlelight vigil to honor the Tuesday night at the site of the old Greater Hyde Park Church, at 875 Mississippi Boulevard.

Copyright 2009 WMC-TV. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.