The Best Western deaths one year later
by Anna Oakes and Allison Haver
Among all the talk since then of felony charges, lawsuits, carbon monoxide detectors and bureaucratic failures, it should not be forgotten that two families have spent more than a year now without their loved ones. For them, this was no ghost story, nor a fleeting headline.
On Thursday, the Williams family gathered for the installation of a grave marker for young Jeffrey Williams, the 11-year-old boy from Rock Hill, S.C., who died in Best Western Room 225 on June 8, 2013.
"Coping with the loss of a loved one is a difficult process," said Darrell Williams, Jeffrey's uncle. "Coping with the loss of your 11-year-old son is extremely difficult. Our family is still grieving from our loss. It is still a long journey."
But many are working in earnest to learn valuable lessons and make meaningful changes after a senseless tragedy. That includes the Williams family, who earlier this year established the Jeffrey Lee Williams Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning.
"Jeffrey was always about information. He loved nothing more than to learn something and share it with others," writes Jeannie Williams, Jeffrey's mother, on the foundation's website. "This foundation and our efforts to educate the public about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning are exactly what Jeffrey would have wanted. His death didn't have to happen, but if we can save just one life with our message, then something positive will have come out of this tragedy."
Jeannie, too, was a victim of the elevated carbon monoxide levels in Room 225 -- not only due to the loss of her son, but because of the lasting, debilitating health effects from carbon monoxide exposure.
According to the Mayo Clinic, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause damage to the brain and heart.
Darrell Williams said Jeannie, his sister-in-law, has endured setbacks with her recovery, which has required surgery and daily treatment.
"Jeannie has had enough health problems this year to make a normal person give up, but she has not given up and works the mission for our foundation," Darrell said, noting that she spoke at Jeffrey's grave marker installation Thursday and at the South Carolina Fire Marshals Convention the previous week. She also takes part in a group of mothers who have lost children. "Her physical body is weak, but her resolve and her faith are strong."
Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, a couple in their 70s, also died from carbon monoxide poisoning in Room 225 in April 2013 -- but local authorities would not identify the cause of death until two months later, when a leaking swimming pool heater and faulty exhaust system was pinpointed as the culprit.
Mark Brumbaugh, the attorney representing the family of the Jenkinses, did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment as of presstime Saturday. In January, he released a statement noting the Jenkins family was pleased to learn of criminal charges in the incidents, and earlier he indicated the family would pursue civil lawsuits, as well.
Legal actions continue
A Watauga County grand jury in January indicted Damon Mallatere -- the president of the company formerly managing the Best Western and other Boone hotels -- on three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of assault inflicting serious bodily injury, all felonies. Mallatere has entered a plea of not guilty to all charges.
"The DA's office decided to submit to the grand jury one name," then-Chief Prosecutor Britt Springer said at the time. But why "one name?" many asked, as multiple individuals, businesses and public agencies were involved in the installation and inspection of the pool heater, as well as the initial investigation of the Jenkinses' death in April 2013.
Five months later, there are new leaders in the district attorney's office. Seth Banks is now the DA, having been appointed to fulfill the term vacated by Jerry Wilson, who retired early March 31 due to health problems. Banks won the Republican primary election for DA and faces no opposition in the general election.
Although Banks recently indicated that Springer would stay on with the DA's office "during this time of transition," he noted last week that Assistant District Attorney Matt Rupp is now taking the lead on the case.
"No final decision has been made on exactly what the team would look like that would take it to trial," Banks said.
Banks declined to comment on questions about whether he would have pursued the same charges and the chances of any charges being dropped.
"I'm not in a position to comment on a pending case or where we might be in six months or a year," he said. "We're certainly giving the attention to this case that it deserves. We will work diligently to bring resolution to this case in the coming months."
The next administrative court date in the case is June 23, and both Banks and defense attorney David Freedman of Winston-Salem indicated the case would likely be continued. Freedman said he expected the transition in the DA's office would push the trial back but, did not know a timeline for a trial.
"Both sides are still in the process of gathering discovery (of evidence)," Freedman said.
A statement released by Mallatere's attorney following his indictment questioned why the criminal investigation did not focus on the contractor, Independence Oil LLC, which converted the pool heater to natural gas service in early 2012 -- or the Boone town inspectors who signed off on it.
Independence Oil's contract for the conversion work stipulated that the company was responsible for ensuring all equipment was adequate and leak-free.
Independence Oil's assets were sold to Blue Ridge Energies last year, and the company is no longer in operation, but is still intact as a subsidiary of Gas Natural Inc., which is also the parent company of Frontier Natural Gas.
The State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors last month initiated a complaint against Independence Oil resulting from its investigation of the Best Western incidents, board Executive Director Dale Dawson said.
"(The board) is running a complaint against Independence Oil for the conversion," Dawson said.
Darryl Knight, former president of Independence Oil, said he has not yet been informed of the complaint and could not comment.
"Everything we did was approved by the inspector, by the city of Boone," Knight said. Following additional investigation by the board, the complaint could proceed to a resolution conference with the contractor and/or disciplinary actions.
The board also filed a complaint against three former maintenance employees at the Boone Best Western, as well as the former operator, Appalachian Hospitality Management, for performing unlicensed work at the hotel, and in April a Wake County judge issued an injunction barring the defendants from engaging in further plumbing, heating or fire sprinkler work without a license.
The board last week reached a decision in the case of Dale Winkler, a licensed contractor who performed work for the hotel, but any disciplinary actions will not be made public until a 30-day appeal period is over, Dawson said.
Both the Jenkins and Williams families have indicated they plan to pursue civil lawsuits in the case. Mallatere has retained Hickory attorney Paul Culpepper to represent him in civil proceedings.
"The outcome of the criminal trial will have very little to do with the civil trial," Darrell Williams said.
Hotel Equities, a hotel development and management company based in Atlanta, Ga., is the new company that has taken over management of the five hotels formerly operated by Appalachian Hospitality Management.
In addition to Best Western, Hotel Equities manages La Quinta Inn & Suites Boone, Sleep Inn & Suites Boone, Country Inn & Suites Boone and Super 8 Boone.
"We are very proud of the extent of the measures we took alongside new ownership upon our arrival Jan. 1," Vice President of Operations Rob Cote said.
Since the Boone Best Western incidents last year, the hotels hired engineers to evaluate all of the Boone facilities, including every appliance that was converted from propane to natural gas, according to Cote.
"They determined that many of the appliances ... converted from propane to natural gas, for Appalachian Hospitality Management, were not functioning properly," Cote said. Hotel Equities replaced all of the appliances and "we also made the decision to replace our pool heaters, with guest rooms above them, with electric heaters so that no ventilation would be required," Cote said.
The company also removed the gas-burning fireplaces at the Best Western in favor of electric fireplaces, although there were no issues with them, according to Cotes.
Carbon monoxide detectors are now in every hotel room Hotel Equities owns in Boone, which Cotes said is "going above and beyond the current laws in place for CO detectors." Booking with the Best Western in Boone did decline this past year, according to Cote.
"As you can expect, bookings have taken a hit on the Best Western, and yet the town as a whole has actually seen an increase over the past year," he said.
Executive Director of Watauga County Tourism and Development Authority Wright Tilley also said that the county was up in overall occupancy tax collections compared to last year.
"I don't have the numbers broken down by each facility, but we are currently up overall from last year," he said.
According to Tilley, the Watauga TDA has not received any calls from people concerned about carbon monoxide.
State legislators responded to the well-publicized Best Western incidents last summer by enacting a law requiring lodging facilities to install CO detectors in every enclosed space with a fuel-burning heater or that adjoins spaces with heaters.
The Appalachian District Health Department is responsible for checking for CO detector compliance as part of annual lodging facility inspections.
Jennifer Greene, health department spokeswoman, said all but one lodging facility in Watauga County have been found to be in compliance with the CO detector requirements since the Oct. 1, 2013, effective date. That facility appealed its violation and was later found to be in compliance based on changing state interpretations of where the detectors are required, Greene said.
Sen. Dan Soucek of Boone and Rep. Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson are among the sponsors of bills this legislative session that would further amend the requirements The proposed changes specify that CO alarms are required instead of detectors and that lodging facilities subject to the law include extended-stay tourist homes and bed and breakfast inns, and the bills modify the required locations of alarms to be dwelling or sleeping units instead of every enclosed space with a fossil fuel-burning heater.
The bill has passed the House and is now moving through the Senate.
"We have followed all of the action very closely," Darrell Williams said.
"We are not fully satisfied with the progress so far, but we applaud the attempts and want to work with the government to make sure this is the last needless death from carbon monoxide poisoning."
Will death investigations improve?
As far back as 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.
Information uncovered in the days following the June 8 death of Jeffrey Williams revealed that local medical examiner Brent Hall could have requested expedited processing and analysis of state toxicology lab results in the Jenkinses' autopsies, but did not. Still, the results confirming carbon monoxide as the cause of death for Shirley Jenkins were available June 1 -- one week before Jeffrey Williams and his mother stayed in Room 225. Hall resigned from his post later that month.
The Charlotte Observer published an investigative series in the months following the Best Western incidents revealing that medical examiners across the state fail to follow crucial steps in their investigations, with examiners not viewing bodies in one out of nine deaths and not visiting the scene of death in 90 percent of cases.
According to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Legal Communications Coordinator Kevin Howell, there is no standardized death investigation system in the United States.
"State law does not require a county medical examiner to visit the scene of a death; however, state law does require law enforcement to notify the county medical examiner before releasing the scene," Howell said. "This allows an opportunity for a comprehensive dialogue with law enforcement about the appropriate steps necessary to ensure a thorough death investigation is conducted, as well as whether the scene should be held open until a medical examiner has the opportunity to visit it."
In cases where there is an autopsy performed, Howell said a forensic pathologist views the body during the autopsy.
Steps have already been taken to improve the state medical examiner system and expedite the processing of toxicological results, according to Howell.
DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos obtained the salary flexibility needed to hire two board-certified forensic pathologists in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Howell said. Wos also had to fight to preserve funding for three regional autopsy centers, he said.
While Gov. Pat McCrory proposed $2 million in additional funding to OCME, both the House and Senate budgets include $1 million in extra funding to the agency, equal to a 23 percent budget increase.
The House budget bill also expands the list of medical personnel eligible to serve as medical examiners to include nurse practitioners and emergency medical technician paramedics and directs part of the funding allocated to the OCME in the 2014-15 budget to be used to establish a system of oversight to achieve operational efficiencies and improve quality assurance, including the development of uniform protocols for conducting death examinations in accordance with established best practices.
Both budget bills call for additional studies of improvements to the OCME system.
Hall served Watauga, Avery, Ashe, Mitchell and Yancey counties. As of now, a new medical examiner is not assigned specifically to Watauga County.
"OCME is awaiting a nomination from the Watauga County Medical Society," Howell said. Adjacent counties and Wake Forest Baptist Hospital are filling the medical examiner duties. Physician's assistant Eddie Pippen, who is part of Piedmont Pathology Associates, is primarily covering Watauga County, Howell said.
Equipment, education a focus for fire department
Since the incidents last year, the Boone Fire Department has made changes to the department's policies and procedures.
"We have modified our standard operating guidelines and have added carbon monoxide monitoring equipment to all of our engines," Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs said. Additional training such as air monitoring training and hazardous materials training has been added to the department, according to Isaacs.
The department has also added carbon monoxide and carbon monoxide detectors to its educational programs.
"For years we have been pushing smoke detectors through our programs, and now we are giving equal coverage to both smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors," Isaacs said.
As a result, the department has installed a lot of CO detectors in homes this past year. "Because of public awareness, we have also responded to more potential carbon monoxide alarms this past year," Isaacs said.
Boone Police Department Capt. Andy Le Beau said the Boone Police procedure is the same as last year.
"We certainly looked at the investigation quite thoroughly, so our plan is still the same," Le Beau said. "If there are any questions or concerns (about carbon monoxide), we will make a request to the fire department for testing."