Solicitor: Many acted 'reckless' in NC hotel poisonings

eleland@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 9, 2014 

A day after a Boone business executive was indicted in the carbon monoxide deaths at the Best Western hotel, a solicitor said many other people “acted in a careless and reckless manner,” but she stopped short of saying she would seek additional indictments.

“There were so many people, so many wrongs done in this case it’s almost unfathomable to see this kind of negligence,” said Britt Springer, assistant district attorney for Watauga County. “Are others at fault? Absolutely.”

Springer declined to name others at fault. She described the four-count indictment against Damon Mallatere, who managed the hotel, as the strongest criminal case. She said she must weigh whether to seek indictments against others who cooperated in the investigation or instead call them as witnesses against Mallatere.

Another issue, she said, is whether they are criminally liable or simply failed to do their job.

“We have huge amounts of players that acted in a careless and reckless manner, but it doesn’t go to the extent that they should have reasonably known that this would have killed somebody,” Springer said.

In a tragedy that has drawn international attention to Boone, Springer’s comments are the strongest condemnation by any public official. Since the deaths last year, authorities have been reticent to discuss wrongdoing.

A police investigation determined that carbon monoxide escaped from the swimming pool water heater into Room 225 of the Best Western, killing Daryl and Shirley Jenkins in April and 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams in June. Jeffrey’s mother, Jeannie, was seriously injured.

On Wednesday, a grand jury indicted Mallatere on three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of assault inflicting serious injury. As president of Appalachian Hospitality Management, he ran the Best Western and four other Boone hotels.

But investigations by the Observer and by authorities uncovered multiple missteps that contributed to the deaths.

Among them: Hotel employees, who were not licensed, installed a used water heater at the Best Western. After the Jenkinses died in April, the Fire Department did not test the room for carbon monoxide and the medical examiner did not expedite toxicology tests.

Mallatere’s attorney also faulted a company that converted the used heater from propane gas to natural gas in 2012, saying the conversion was improperly performed and caused extremely high levels of carbon monoxide to be released. In a statement after Mallatere was indicted, the attorney said they were concerned that other businesses in Boone may have similar problems if Independence Gas & Oil converted their appliances.

Springer said town inspectors were checking to see. The Boone Planning and Inspections Department declined to confirm that.

The Observer filed a public records request, asking for inspection records on gas conversions by Independence Oil. But the town clerk also declined to release that information, saying the records are part of a criminal investigation.

‘I’ll be out of touch’

Shortly before 2 a.m. Thursday, Mallatere posted a note on his Facebook page:

“I’ll be out of touch for awhile but I deeply appreciate your kind words during this very difficult time. Lisa, Christian and Patrick (his family) will need your support in my absence. I will always be grateful for anything you might do to help them, especially your prayers.”

The post elicited a number of responses from friends who pledged support. “Good luck on finding true justice,” one wrote. “No one deserves it more!”

As of early evening Thursday, Mallatere had not been served with orders for arrest. His attorney is expected to make arrangements for him to turn himself in.

If convicted, Mallatere could face a maximum penalty of 20 months in prison on each involuntary manslaughter charge, and also on the assault charge. His first court date is Feb. 17.

Involuntary manslaughter is defined under common law as an unintentional killing caused by recklessness or carelessness with disregard to the consequences or indifference to the safety and rights of others.

The prosecution is expected to present evidence that Mallatere violated North Carolina building codes that required him to obtain a permit before having the used water heater installed at the Best Western, and also required him to properly maintain the heater.

Springer said she hopes the case will be tried this year, possibly within the next five or six months. “At this time, we have zero pending murder cases,” she said. “This one would take high priority.” Charlotte Observer Reporter Rick Rothacker and researcher Maria David contributed.

Leland: 704-358-5074

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