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Originally published: 2014-02-18 12:09:46
Last modified: 2014-02-18 21:27:25

Former hotel operator appears in court

by Anna Oakes

The hotel operator charged with involuntary manslaughter in last year's Best Western carbon monoxide fatalities appeared in Watauga County court for the first time Tuesday.

Counsel for defendant Damon Mallatere and the district attorney's office requested that the case be continued to a new administrative court date of April 21 to provide the defense with more time for discovery of the state's evidence, and Superior Court Judge Phil Ginn granted the continuance.

The defense did not enter a formal plea on Tuesday, but attorney Dudley Witt of Winston-Salem firm Crumpler Freedman Parker & Witt said he was confident Mallatere would enter a plea of not guilty when the time came.

"We're comfortable going to court," Witt said.

Last month, a Watauga County grand jury indicted Mallatere on three counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, a couple in their 70s, and Jeffrey Williams, an 11-year-old child. Mallatere was also charged with one count of assault inflicting serious injury for injuries suffered by Williams' mother, Jeannie.

Investigators linked the elevated CO levels in Best Western room 225 -- where both families stayed in April and June 2013 -- to a leaking pool water heater and faulty exhaust system.

At the time of the deaths, Mallatere was president of Appalachian Hospitality Associates, the company managing operations at the Best Western. As of Jan. 1, the company no longer manages operations at the Best Western and other Boone hotels.

Mallatere entered an initial plea of not guilty and posted a bond of $40,000 upon turning himself in on the charges last month.

Witt said the state has a high burden of proof in demonstrating criminal negligence and that the defense is placing its faith in the judicial system.

"All accidental deaths are not the result of criminal conduct," said Witt. "We're confident (a jury will) find no criminal liability."

Assistant District Attorney Britt Springer said the state handed over copies of its evidence -- 17 disks containing some 2,000 pages of documents -- to the defense about three weeks ago, but since then, "people have contacted us who want to give statements about various issues. We've got a whole new batch of people we want to interview."

Springer said the arraignment -- in which the defendant hears the charges against him in court and enters a formal plea -- would not take place until discovery is complete.

After arraignment, a trial date will be set to hear motions from the state or defense, and when all motions are heard and the defense is ready, the case will proceed to a jury trial, Springer said.

Springer said the district attorney's office is continuing to look at other possible criminal suspects.

"(With) the new evidence, we'll reconsider everybody else that has been involved at this point," she said.

Ginn noted to the court Tuesday that he would preside over scheduling and other procedural matters in the case but that he planned to recuse himself from any substantive hearings, citing a conflict of interest because Mallatere is his former client and a friend.