By Jesse Wood
Jan. 8, 2014. Hotel executive Damon Mallatere, president of Appalachian Hospitality Management, has been charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of assault in relation to the three deaths that are linked to carbon monoxide poisoning inside Room 225 of the Best Western hotel.
On Wednesday evening inside the lower level courtroom of the Watauga County Courthouse, Assistant District Attorney Britt Springer made the announcement at a press conference following the return of the indictments from the grand jury upstairs.
Flanked by investigators with the Boone Police Department, a prosecutor with the District Attorney’s Office and an inspector with the Boone Planning and Inspections, Springer read the names of each of the victims:
“Daryl Jenkins, age 73; Shirley Jenkins, age 72; Jeffrey Williams, age 11, and Jeannie Williams, [who suffered] permanent brain damage due to carbon monoxide poisoning,” Springer said.
The Jenkinses died together on April 16, while Williams passed away nearly two months later in the same room in June. It wasn’t until the boy’s passing that authorities linked the three deaths and decided to test for carbon monoxide inside the hotel.
While local medical examiner Brent Hall, who resigned within two weeks of Williams’ death, requested an analysis for carbon monoxide toxicity from the state in April, the Boone Police Department didn’t receive those results until after Williams had died. In June, Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said that while the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner didn’t expedite Jenkinses’ results because Hall didn’t request them to be expedited, Hall received those results via email one week before the second tragedy in Room 225 struck. Hall hasn’t responded to comment since the investigation began.
In June, local, state and federal investigators confirmed that a deficient exhaust system for the pool water heater at the Best Western in Boone led to the deaths of three lodgers who stayed in Room 225 earlier this year. Room 225 is situated above the pool’s mechanical room that houses the water heater.
The Boone Police Department conducted a five-month long investigation and Springer and other staff at the DA’s office recently poured through thousands pages of the investigative report that includes interviews, photos, physical evidence and statements. Twice in the past two months, the District Attorney’s Office met with investigators from the Boone Police Department and staff with the Boone Planning and Inspections department.
After reviewing the final investigative report, Springer presented the evidence and recommended charges to the grand jury, which Springer called the “gatekeepers of our judicial system,” and Wednesday afternoon, the 18-member grand jury came back with indictments for three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of assault inflicting serious bodily harm.
The paperwork filed for the indictment wasn’t available because the office of the clerk of court was closed by the time the grand jury adjourned and the press conference ended. Also since grand juries don’t meet in the open, it is unclear what evidence prosecutors presented to the grand jury.
Paul Culpepper, Mallatere’s attorney, released a statement saying that Mallatere is “extremely disappointed” that authorities pressed criminal charges against him, claiming that a conversion of the pool heater from propane to natural gas by Independence Oil “was not properly performed.”
“This lead directly to extremely high levels of carbon monoxide being produced by the pool heater,” according to the statement that also mentioned other hotels in the area have appliances that were converted by Independence Oil. The statement also mentioned that these appliances were inspected by the Boone Planning & Inspections Department, too.
“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.
“Mr. Mallatere is extremely disappointed the Boone Police have decided to ignore the actions of Independence Oil in their investigation and focus solely on a business owner who entered into a written agreement with a recommended company to perform the conversions. Of course this would also bring into questions the actions by the Town of Boone for their inspection of the conversions,” the statement read.
A representative for Independent Oil couldn’t be reached, nor could staff on the Boone Planning and Inspections department, after Mallatere’s statement was released on Wednesday evening.
In announcing the charges on Wednesday, Springer said she wanted to make it clear that the charges were “merely an accusation” and that Mallatere is assumed innocent until proven guilty in the court of law.