In an emotional resolution to a tragic case, manslaughter charges were dismissed Monday against the manager of the Best Western hotel where three guests died of carbon monoxide poisoning. In exchange, his former company accepted blame.
The plea agreement could make it easier for families to collect damages in wrongful death lawsuits filed against Appalachian Hospitality Management. But it did nothing to ease their heartbreak.
Recalling the day 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams of Rock Hill was born, his mother, Jeannie, told the court: “I cradled this precious new life in my arms and promised to be the best mom for him that I could be. I promised to care for him, comfort him, laugh with him, cry with him.... Jeffrey is the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about before I go to bed. I ask God to give me His strength to get through each day without my sweet Jeffrey.”
Jeannie Williams drove to Boone Monday from Rock Hill with her husband and their daughter, after making the agonizing decision to return for the first time to the town where her son died and she nearly died. Also at the hearing in Watauga County Superior Court were Kris Hauschildt and her brother, Doug Jenkins, who flew from Washington state hoping for accountability in the deaths of their parents.
Daryl and Shirley Jenkins had traveled to this tourist town in the Blue Ridge Mountains in April 2013 to visit cousins. They died on their second night in Room 225 at the Best Western.
Less than six weeks later, Jeffrey died in the same room and Jeannie Williams was seriously injured after laying unconscious on the bathroom floor for more than 14 hours. They had been on their way to pick up Jeffrey’s sister, Breanne, from camp.
The two families, from opposite ends of the country, did what many of us routinely do: They checked into a hotel, assuming that once inside their room for the night, they would be safe. It was only after Jeffrey was found dead in the bed that authorities discovered a carbon monoxide leak in the swimming pool water heating system on the floor below.
In a chilling comparison, Hauschildt estimated in court what it might have cost to replace the faulty heater and ventaltilation system: $4,341.74.
“What we have lost,” she said, “is immeasurable.”
Errors resulted in deaths
Damon Mallatere, who managed the Best Western, was indicted in January 2014 on charges of manslaughter in the three deaths and a charge of assault in the poisoning of Jeannie Williams.
But, from the beginning, the case was considered problematic.
The Observer uncovered a series of errors and decisions by many different people that led to the tragedies. Testimony before a state regulatory board indicated Mallatere was the only one who took action that might have prevented the second set of poisonings.
The plea bargain was hammered out between district attorney Seth Banks and defense attorney David Freedman. The charges against Mallatere were dropped. His former company, Appalachian Hospitality Management, pleaded guilty to three counts of manslaughter.
In the past, Mallatere said that everybody involved should feel some responsibility. But he said he didn't believe he was guilty of criminal action. By accepting the plea agreement, he avoided a trial and possible prison time.
Though a company obviously can’t be sent to prison, the guilty pleas could have a bearing on wrongful death suits the two families filed against Mallatere and Appalachian Hospital. The lawsuits also seek damages from Best Western International and the hotel's owners, as well as from companies and individuals who worked on the heating system where the gas originated.
“Justice for our families will not be served until all parties are held accountable for their respective roles in the deaths of Daryl, Shirley and Jeffrey, and the permanent injury to Jeannie at the Boone Best Western,” the two families said in a joint press release. “It is our hope and expectation that our civil action will continue to bring to light the facts of what happened at that hotel so that it is never allowed to happen again.”
After the deaths, the N.C. General Assembly adopted a new law requiring carbon monoxide alarms in certain areas of hotels near fossil fuel burning appliances.
But both families are advocating for a federal requirement of carbon detectors in every hotel room in the United States. Jeffrey’s parents formed a nonprofit to push for the mandate.
Promise of three lives ended
Hauschildt and Jenkins described their father, 73, as a renaissance man who loved to camp, fish, boat, golf, cross country ski as well as carve wood, make jewerly and garden. He was a retired psycholgist. At his funeral, a client recalled that she couldn’t afford to pay him so he suggested she bake cookies instead. Their mother, 72, was the family caretaker, a master at the the art of multi-tasking and also at cooking rhubarb sauce. She retired after 30 years as an officer manager.
Their trip to Boone was part of “their retirement journey.”
“Just to hear their voices was a comfort. Each year that passes, their voices seem harder and harder to remember what they sounded like,” Jenkins said.
Jeffrey had his life ahead of him. He loved being with family and friends. He liked technology and helping people. He also enjoyed staying in hotels – especially ones with pools. That’s why Jeannie Williams picked the Best Western.
Their room was directly above the pool with its faulty heating system leaking deadly carbon monoxide. Within less than an hour of checking in, Jeffrey was dead.
“Jeffrey, I ache to hear your voice and feel your touch every day,” Jeannie Williams said in court. “I ache to hear your voice say, ‘Bye, Mom, I love you” as you run out the door with your dad. My life is forever impacted by the way you lived your life and my life will forever be impacted by the void that is on this earth without you. I love you, Jeffrey and though you are not here on this earth with me, I will forever be your loving mom.”
Statement from the Jenkins and Williams families
Our families wish to thank District Attorney Seth Banks and the Watauga County District Attorney’s office for working so diligently on behalf of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins and Jeffrey and Jeannie Williams to bring resolution to this case.
This plea agreement brings closure to the criminal phase. However, justice for our families will not be served until all parties are held accountable for their respective roles in the deaths of Daryl, Shirley and Jeffrey, and the permanent injury to Jeannie at the Boone Best Western. It is our hope and expectation that our civil action will continue to bring to light the facts of what happened at that hotel so that it is never allowed to happen again.
We continue to advocate for a federal mandatory requirement of carbon monoxide detectors in every hotel room in the United States. Currently only 12 states require installation of carbon monoxide detectors in hotels and motels under statute. (Source: National Conference of State Legislatures http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/carbon-monoxide-detectors-state-statutes.aspx).