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City appears to be willing to back off fight over liens filed in deaths of firefighters

HOUSTON – The city of Houston now appears to be willing to release more than $1 million in liens, without stipulation, held against the estates of Houston firefighters who perished in the 2013 Southwest Inn fire.

Four firefighters -- Robert Bebee, Anne Sullivan, Robert Garner and Matthew Renaud -- died at the scene of a five-alarm fire on the Southwest Freeway near Hillcroft. Capt. Bill Dowline died from his injuries in 2017.

"Initially, there was the $20,000 lien that each family was being charged to have their loved one transferred from site of fire to the coroner's office," Mary Sullivan, Anne Sullivan's mother, said.

Sullivan said that lien at first appeared to have been released by the city, but later grew to $189,000.

"I called the city. I called, like, five times because I wanted a breakdown, but they would never return my calls," Sullivan said.

In July, Mayor Sylvester Turner told Channel 2 reporter Phil Archer that he had not authorized the city attorney to seek collection of the funds.

But after a lot of back-and-forth, the liens were never technically released.

The families then filed a civil lawsuit that aimed to settle the matter.

On Friday, in District Court, the city appeared willing to abandon liens, without stipulation. After an inquiry by Channel 2, Alan Bernstein, the Director of communication for the mayor, wrote the following:

"As City Attorney Ron Lewis indicated in court today, there is a deal in progress that may resolve the matter involving the liens the city filed under a previous mayor against the defendants. The defendants are businesses and others sued by the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs are firefighters injured in, and survivors of those killed in, the Southwest Inn fire. In other words, the city never sought money from firefighters and firefighter families. And under Mayor Turner the city never pursued the liens."

On Friday, the deal did not yet have any signed paperwork behind it, but Mary Sullivan considered the matter resolved.

"It's allowing us to have some sort of closure in terms of our loved ones' estates," Sullivan said.