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Police could end Best Western probe soon

by Anna Oakes

Boone Police Investigations Commander Andy Le Beau said Monday that police could conclude their investigation into three fatalities at Boone's Best Western hotel sometime next week.

Police continue to conduct interviews and obtain documents related to the April 16 deaths of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, ages 73 and 72, and the June 8 death of Jeffrey Lee Williams, 11, which authorities said were caused by elevated carbon monoxide levels in Best Western room 225.

Investigators linked the carbon monoxide levels to an indoor pool water heater and faulty exhaust system at the hotel.

Le Beau said the department could be ready to present its findings to District Attorney Jerry Wilson "maybe sometime next week."

"Everyone in the process has been cooperative," he said. "It's just some things are a time-consuming process."

Le Beau said media reports earlier this week claiming police had expanded their investigation to other area hotels had "misconstrued" his statements. He said the investigation is examining possible connections between personnel and equipment that may have transferred from one hotel to another, but that there is no new target or focus in the investigation.

According to Watauga County records and other documents, the Best Western is owned by AJD Investments and managed by Appalachian Hospitality Management, which operates a number of hotels in Boone.

The N.C. State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors is conducting an investigation of the Best Western incidents, as well. The board likely will not produce a report, but instead will generate case notes, which will be incorporated into the Boone Police investigative file, Le Beau said.

A U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission investigation relates specifically to the pool water heater, he said.

The Boone Planning and Inspections Department is conducting a separate investigation to determine if the Best Western violated local and state codes. The department on June 14 sent a letter to Best Western representatives requesting proof of any permits issued and information about any work conducted without a permit.

By law, the hotel has until July 17 to respond to the letter.

Planning and Inspections Department director Bill Bailey said the last time his department inspected the facility was in March 2012, when the hotel converted to natural gas service. No irregularity in the pool water heater was noted at that time, Bailey said, but he said his staff members were told that a water heater had since been moved from the Sleep Inn's outdoor facility to the Best Western's indoor pool and installed without a permit.

The Watauga Democrat requested copies of building inspection records for the Best Western, but the Boone town clerk's office denied the request, stating the documents are not public records because they are part of a criminal investigation.

Bailey said the Sleep Inn has applied for a permit to replace its pool water heater and that the Super 8 is also in the process of permitting a new pool heater. The Super 8 recently removed an old heater without permits and hired a contractor to install a new one, Bailey said.

The contractor then called the Planning and Inspections Department to look at the heater.

"We directed them to get an engineer to design the exhaust system and then apply for permits before they could install the new heater. We also had them cap off the gas until the permit was issued," Bailey said.