By Jesse Wood
Nov. 25, 2014. The State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating & Fire Sprinkler Contractors has suspended the license of a second contractor who performed work at the Best Western in Boone prior to the carbon monoxide deaths of three guests who stayed in Room 225 of the hotel.
The two separate incidents leading to three deaths and permanent brain damage in a fourth victim occurred less than two months in the spring of 2013. Room 225 was situated just above a pool water heater, which was deemed to have a deficient exhaust system in an investigation by local, state and federal agencies.
The state board last week found that Thomas Daniel Miller, an employee of Independence Oil & Gas at the time, converted the pool heater from propane to natural gas even though that was in violation of the manufacturer’s instructions.
State Board of Examiners Executive Director Dale Dawson also said the board found that Miller failed to properly supervise the work, violated state fuel gas codes and ‘created risk of personal injury or property damage.’”
Miller agreed to a one-year suspension at a resolution conference last week.
Earlier this year, the state board also suspended Dale Winkler of DJ’s Heating Service for one year, however Winkler has filed an appeal in Watauga County Superior Court. “The panel said [Winkler] failed to recognize a number of problems when he was asked to check out the pool heater after the Jenkinses’ deaths,” according to the Charlotte Observer report.
Dawson wouldn’t comment on the Winkler case because it is under appeal, but he did say, “We are confident that the board took the right steps and encourage Watauga County Superior Court to uphold [the state board’s prior ruling.]”
In April 2014, a Wake County judge issued a issued a permanent injunction against three maintenance workers employed by Appalachian Hospitality Management from “engaging in business as a plumbing, heating or fire sprinkler contractor and all other activities regulated by the [state board] at all such times as they are not properly licensed to do so,” according to court documents.
Charles Harold Robinson of Watauga County, Steve Thigpen of South Carolina and Rich Moses of Tennessee in October 2011 replaced a pool heater at the Best Western with a used heater from a different hotel under the operation of Appalachian Hospitality Management. The State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating & Fire Sprinkler Contractors found that the three weren’t licensed to perform the work.
Months after that work, Independence Oil & Gas were hired to convert the pool water heater from propane to natural gas, and the Charlotte Observer reported: “The contract specified that Independence would replace any appliance that could not be converted with new equipment designed for natural gas. That didn’t happen.”
In January 2014, former Assistant District Attorney Britt Springer announced that hotel executive Damon Mallatere, president of Appalachian Hospitality Management at the time of the three deaths, was charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of Daryl Jenkins, 73; Shirley Jenkins, 72; and Jeffrey Williams, 11; and one count of assault, pertaining to Jeannie Williams, the mother of Jeffrey and victim of brain damage from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Following the indictment from the grand jury, Mallatere, through a statement released by AHM attorney Paul Culpepper, said he was “extremely disappointed” to face criminal charges and claimed that the conversion of the pool heater from propane to natural gas by Independence Oil was not properly executed.
“Independence Oil converted the pool heater at the Best Western even though the manufacturer has a warning in the owner’s manual saying it should not be converted. A permit was issued by the Town of Boone, and it was allegedly inspected by the Town of Boone to make sure the conversion was performed properly,” the statement read.
Recently, Dudley Witt, an attorney of Mallatere, told Charlotte Observer that the decisions from the State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating & Fire Sprinkler Contractors should help Mallatere’s defense if the case proceeds to trial.
“I believe that will weigh well for our client in any future matters related to this case,” he told the paper.
Mallatere’s next court date is Feb. 16, 2015. Prior administrative court hearings have been continued.
In February 2014, Mallatere entered an initial plea of not guilty and posted a bond of $40,000.