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Boone Best Western is shown at the time of the early investigations.

File Photo

Originally published: 2014-05-01 20:36:48
Last modified: 2014-05-01 20:37:33

Injunctions issued against former Best Western workers

by Anna Oakes

A Wake County judge has issued an injunction barring three former maintenance employees at the Boone Best Western as well as Appalachian Hospitality Management Inc. from performing plumbing, heating and fire sprinkler work without a license.

Representatives from the State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors conducted an investigation at the hotel last summer following the discovery of carbon monoxide as the cause of three people's deaths there in April and June. Investigators said high levels of carbon monoxide originated from an indoor swimming pool water heater and a deficient exhaust system.

The board has the authority to suspend or revoke the license of any contractor who does not comply with state laws and pursue legal action against individuals performing work without a proper license.

The permanent injunction judgment filed in Wake County Superior Court April 22 prohibits Charles Harold Robinson of Watauga County, Steve Thigpen of South Carolina, Rich Moses of Tennessee and Appalachian Hospitality Management -- the former operator of the Best Western and other Boone hotels -- from engaging in unlicensed business as a plumbing, heating or fire sprinkler contractor.

The board's complaint alleged that the three employees of Appalachian Hospitality Management installed a used gas-fueled swimming pool heater and associated exhaust piping connections at the Best Western during fall 2011 and winter 2012 without possessing a license from the State Board of Examiners.

All four parties consented to the judgment in February and March, despite denying that they were engaged in business as heating contractors, according to court documents.

"The defendants deny this allegation but are willing to enter into this consent order," the judgment states. "There is substantial evidence to support the conclusion that (North Carolina) General Statutes 87-21 has been violated even though the defendants deny this allegation, and the court finds and concludes that such violation has occurred."

Paul Culpepper, the Hickory attorney representing Appalachian Hospitality Management and the three maintenance employees, told Watauga Democrat in January that he and his clients were not prepared to comment at that time. He did not return an email seeking comment as of presstime.

Dale Dawson, executive director of the State Board of Examiners office, said the injunction is enforceable in North Carolina only. If the defendants violate the order, they could be found in contempt of court and sentenced by a judge to up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine for each infraction, Dawson said.

Also facing potential action from the state board related to work performed at the Best Western is a licensed contractor, Dale Thomas Winkler of Boone.

Board attorney Reed Fountain said in January that Winkler was not alleged to have installed the leaking pool heater at the hotel. Winkler said previously that he did not wish to comment on the matter.

An informal settlement conference held last December did not reach a resolution, and the board will hold a formal hearing with Winkler on May 13, Dawson said. The board will then deliberate and reach a decision on any disciplinary actions to be taken, and upon notice of any actions, the contractor would then have 30 days to appeal.

Damon Mallatere, the president of Appalachian Hospitality Management at the time of the Best Western incidents, faces criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault in the deaths. An administrative hearing in that case is set for June 23 in Watauga County Superior Court.

Mallatere and others have questioned why authorities have not directed more attention to contractor Independence Oil, which performed the natural gas conversion of the pool heater in 2012. Town of Boone documents indicate the facility passed a natural gas conversion inspection conducted in March 2012.

"I can say that the board is looking into it, and we sent a lot of letters out to a lot of different people," Dawson said Thursday. The board has "sent a letter out ... in reference to conversions that were performed and had been inspected," he added.