Carbon monoxide trial postponed for Best Western where Rock Hill boy died

Damon Mallatere listens as his attorney addresses the judge during a 2014 court hearing in Boone. Mallatere was back in court Tuesday.
Damon Mallatere listens as his attorney addresses the judge during a 2014 court hearing in Boone. Mallatere was back in court Tuesday. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

The criminal case against the former manager of the Best Western in the carbon monoxide poisonings of four hotel guests was unexpectedly postponed Tuesday.

Damon Mallatere, 51, was supposed to be arraigned and enter a plea. He drove 13 hours from his home in Florida to do it. The prosecution announced “the state and defense are still in the process of discussing this case,” and rescheduled it for July 6.

Mallatere was charged in the 2013 deaths of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins and Rock Hill’s Jeffrey Williams, and the poisoning of Jeannie Williams. The Jenkinses died at the hotel in April 2013. Two months later, in the same room, 11-year-old Jeffrey died and his mother suffered severe injuries.

If and when he is arraigned, Mallatere said he would plead not guilty.

“We had no visit from any authorities after the Jenkinses’ deaths,” Mallatere said. “Not from the fire department. Not from the health department. Not the building department. To my knowledge, the police never came back to the scene. Based on their lack of concern and inspections done for me by B.J.’s Heating and Air, I did not believe there was any issue in that room.”

Mallatere said he was told by a police detective that authorities suspected the Jenkinses died of heart attacks.

Everybody involved should feel some responsibility, Mallatere said, but added he didn’t think anybody did anything criminal.

After the second poisonings, investigators discovered deadly levels of carbon monoxide spewing from the swimming pool water heater on the floor below. The gas seeped through holes in a corroded exhaust pipe and up into Room 225 through the fireplace, and possibly also through the heating and air conditioning unit.

An Observer investigation uncovered a series of errors and decisions that led to the tragedies – from the actions of maintenance workers to the inaction of the local medical examiner.

Mallatere was indicted in January 2014. If his case goes to trial, it would be up to a jury to decide whether his actions overseeing maintenance workers rose to the level of what is known as culpable negligence – in other words, that he acted recklessly, putting another person at risk.

Mallatere is also a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed in February by the Jenkins family. Other defendants include Best Western International as well as a gas company and a local heating technician who worked on the swimming pool heating system. The Williams family is expected to file its own lawsuit.

Both families have advocated for detectors in every guest room in every U.S. hotel. Best Western International now requires them in all rooms. Most hotels do not.

In North Carolina, a law passed after the deaths in Boone requires alarms in certain places in hotels with fossil-fuel-burning appliances.

Leland: 704-358-5074