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Grand jury indicts motel owner in gas deaths

The Associated Press

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BOONE — The president of the company that owns a Boone motel where three guests were killed by poison gas that seeped into their room faces felony charges, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

A grand jury on Wednesday indicted Damon Mallatere, president of Appalachian Hospitality Management, prosecutor Britt Springer said at a Boone news conference. The company owned the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza, where police said a faulty swimming pool heater allowed carbon monoxide to seep into motel room 225.

Two Washington state visitors died in April, but delays in investigating the cause led to Jeffrey Williams, 11, of Rock Hill, S.C., dying in the same room in June. The boy’s mother nearly died and suffered permanent physical damage from the carbon monoxide poisoning, Springer said.

Mallatere faces three counts of involuntary manslaughter and assault-inflicting serious bodily injury for the injuries suffered by Jeannie Williams, Springer said.

Messages left at a Blowing Rock telephone number listed for Mallatere and the management company’s offices weren’t returned Wednesday.

Boone police conducted a six-month criminal investigation and presented findings to the local district attorney’s office in December.

“It’s a very voluminous record,” Springer said. In the end, “the DA’s office decided to submit to the grand jury one name.”

The charges, which could carry prison sentences of up to almost seven years, come in a case which also featured lapses by government officials.

Fire officials failed to test the motel room, located above the heater, for carbon monoxide after the April deaths of 73-year-old Daryle Jenkins and 72-year-old Shirley Mae Jenkins of Longview, Wash.

The local medical examiner did not ask that toxicology results on their blood be expedited, so it took about six weeks to return tests results for the couple. State officials said they were not told the information was needed urgently and that Watauga County medical examiner Dr. Brent Hall initially thought the couple probably died of overdoses.

The state medical examiner’s office learned June 1 that toxicology tests showed Shirley Jenkins suffered a lethal level of carbon monoxide. The state agency sent the results to Hall, who investigated the deaths. But neither the state nor Hall warned the motel’s owners, Boone police or fire officials of the danger.

Jeffrey Williams was found dead in the same room on June 8.

The deadly gas from the faulty water heater was able to seep into the motel room through an opening under the gas fireplace unit, as well as the wall-mounted heating and air conditioning unit, police said.