Best Western tragedy leads to toxicology protocol changes
by Anna Oakes
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has implemented changes to toxicology laboratory protocols following the fatal carbon monoxide poisonings of three people in a Boone hotel room, a department spokesperson said.
The N.C. Toxicology Laboratory -- which provides forensic analytical testing of specimens and evidence from medical examiner cases -- now requires pathologists to submit a history with any specimen submitted, and specimens lacking sufficient data will not be processed, the department said.
The lab also reiterated that medical examiners can request a "stat" test for the presence of carbon monoxide, which will lead to expedited processing, according to DHHS.
Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, ages 73 and 72, died after staying in Best Western room 225 on April 16. Less than two months later, 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams died in the same hotel room, and his mother was hospitalized with poisoning injuries.
Information uncovered in the days following the June 8 death of Williams revealed that the processing and analysis of toxicology results in the autopsies of the Jenkinses could have been expedited -- but were not. Documents also indicate that toxicology results for Shirley Jenkins were available as early as June 1, but police say they were not shared until after the June 8 incident.
Shortly after these revelations, Brent Hall resigned from his post as the regional pathologist for Watauga County.
A DHHS spokesperson said in June that the April requests were not expedited by the state office because the request forms indicated the possible cause of death as an overdose and that no circumstantial information communicated a need to expedite the request.
Following Hall's resignation, DHHS Secretary Aldana Wos released a statement pledging "to work with local officials to identify measures to ensure tragedies like this never happen again."
In response to a June public records request for any memos or documents from Wos regarding this directive, a DHHS spokesperson said there were no written communications from Wos with those instructions.
In 2001, a General Assembly study group questioned whether North Carolina's medical examiners had adequate training and funding to properly investigate deaths. The panel offered almost two dozen recommendations, including mandatory training, improved death scene investigations and the hiring of professional death investigators.
As of Sept. 13, no one had been permanently appointed to fill the medical examiner position for the Watauga County area, the DHHS spokesperson said. Other area medical examiners continue to cover the position until an appointee is named.