WHISTLEBLOWER: Betty Murray.
When her only son was killed in a roadside accident in 1970, Cumberland Towers resident Betty Murray made a vow. A former newspaper reporter who has seen plenty — a frequent and vocal critic of the Little Rock Housing Authority, who calls herself a “bitch” with no small pride — Murray fought back tears recently while recalling that vow: that she would help people whenever they needed help, no matter what the cost.
“When I got disabled, I could no longer give money,” she said. “So instead, if somebody comes to me and asks for help, I try to do it for them.”
Now 74 years old, most of her time spent in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, Murray has recently been upholding that promise by phoning everyone she can to tell what she claims is a secret the Little Rock Housing Authority, which operates Cumberland Towers, doesn’t want told.
Contradicting reports by both the company that installed the alarm system and the Little Rock fire marshal, Murray claims that on May 5, the night of the fire that claimed the lives of two elderly women on the seventh floor of Cumberland Towers, the fire alarm system may have malfunctioned. A former resident of apartment 706, Murray says the skull-numbingly loud alarm in her room never went off, and the alarm in the hall only “muttered” periodically — squawking briefly, then falling silent. This made her believe it was a false alarm.
The Arkansas Times has interviewed two other Cumberland Towers residents with similar accounts about alarms that didn’t sound. Murray says still others are prepared to come forward.
The alarms, which reportedly were tested the week before the fire, are the only line of defense for residents. The 11-story building was built before sprinklers were required. The cause of the May 5 fire has not yet been determined. The resident of the apartment where it began died shortly after of burns. A nearby resident apparently was overcome by smoke.
For Murray, the cost of exposing what she calls a “cover-up” of malfunctioning alarms may be high. She soon may be out on the street.
On Monday, May 23, following a visit the previous Friday by this reporter and Arkansas Times photographer Brian Chilson, Murray received an eviction notice ordering her out of her apartment by June 6. Signed by Little Rock Housing Authority lead site coordinator Dorothy J. Brown, the notice said that Murray had broken her lease by engaging with the Arkansas Times in a “planned scheme to gain illegal access to the 7th floor with the sole purpose of maligning the LRHA and other local officials.”
The Arkansas Times is unaware of, and took no part in, any plan to gain access to the seventh floor. Its visit to Murray complied with rules for visiting residents. Its employees identified themselves as Times employees and were allowed to visit Murray after signing a guest book. “This eviction appears to be little more than an effort to silence a tenant who raised legitimate questions about building safety,” Times editor Max Brantley said. “It would be unconscionable by anyone, but particularly by a government agency bound to respect the First Amendment.”
The notice says Murray also violated her lease when she attempted to take photographs of her apartment during a subsequent trip to the seventh floor to transfer personal items to her temporary residence on the second floor, and that Murray — on seeing her extensively smoke-damaged home for the first time since the fire — “became belligerent, disorderly, abusive and threatening” to a site coordinator who had accompanied her, cursing the site coordinator twice and then attempting to “convinc(e) our mechanics that they did not hear and see your actions.” The LRHA, Brown writes, considers these actions “coercion and attempting to get others to commit a fraudulent act.”
Officials with Little Rock Housing Authority and the Little Rock HUD field office both insisted that questions about the eviction of Betty Murray be submitted in writing. Neither had responded by press time.
Ward 1 City Director Johnnie Pugh — in whose ward Cumberland Towers falls — said there are lot of things she doesn’t like about the Little Rock Housing Authority and the way it treats tenants, but the hands of City Board members are tied because the LRHA does not fall under their jurisdiction. (This isn’t entirely true. The Little Rock Board of Directors has the power to confirm or not confirm members of the Housing Authority’s governing board.) Pugh said many residents won’t speak up for fear of eviction.
“It’s bad that they treat these people like that,” Pugh said. “The reason that a lot of other people don’t say anything is just what’s happening to Miss Murray. They say they’ll be evicted. To me, something needs to be done about that.”
Pugh said that it was obvious the Housing Authority had a problem with Murray because she was willing to speak out. “In other words,” Pugh said, “if they get her out, they won’t have to worry about anyone else complaining because the other people are afraid.”
As word about her eviction notice spread through the beige tower on Eighth Street near downtown, Murray said her phone hasn’t stopped ringing — mostly well-wishers from Cumberland Towers, making their own vow to stand by her. She says they see her as one of the few who isn’t afraid to speak up “or too stupid not to,” she adds later with a chuckle.
Murray has announced a 10 a.m. meeting at Cumberland Towers on Saturday, May 29 to talk to residents and the media about her eviction and her suspicions about malfunctioning fire alarms the night of May 5. Sitting in her chair in an apartment on the second floor, Murray said she expects Cumberland Towers residents to turn out in force for the meeting, vowing that they’ll meet outside on the lawn if LRHA tries to stop them. They can’t evict us all, she said. Behind her, the phone rang again.
“They’re angry about what’s happened to me,” Murray said. “I’m the only one who ever seems to care.”