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Police expand inquiry into Boone hotel deaths

BOONE A police investigation into a Boone hotel where three people died from carbon monoxide poisoning this year has expanded to two other hotels operated by the same management company.

Meanwhile, a state licensing board continues to look into the source of the deadly gas leak and the victims’ families have hired lawyers or investigators of their own.

Officials have blamed a pool heater for leaking carbon monoxide that killed a Washington state couple, Daryl Dean Jenkins and Shirley Mae Jenkins, on April 16 and 11-year-old Jeffrey Lee Williams of Rock Hill on June 8. Jeffrey’s mother, Jeannie, was hospitalized.

All four stayed in the same room at the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza. The hotel has been closed since the Rock Hill boy’s death.

Key questions in the deaths include: Who installed the pool heater? How long had it malfunctioned? Was anyone aware of a possible problem?

It’s also unclear why no one took action after the state says it sent a June 1 report to former Watauga County Medical Examiner Dr. Brent Hall showing Shirley Mae Jenkins had a lethal concentration of carbon monoxide in her blood.

That report was completed a week before Jeffrey’s death.

Hall resigned his post last month.

The Boone Police Department is investigating operations at the Best Western, the Sleep Inn and the Country Inns & Suites in Boone because some employees worked at all three hotels, Boone Police Capt. Andy LeBeau told the Observer. Some equipment was also shared among the hotels, he said.

Police are interviewing employees at the hotels and gathering information from various contractors who dealt with the pool heater, LeBeau said.

“When we are finished, the investigation will be presented to the district attorney to see if there is any kind of criminal violation that occurred,” he said.

The investigation will take at least another week, LeBeau said. The town of Boone is not releasing building inspection documents related to the three hotels because they are part of the police probe, he said.

Watauga County District Attorney Jerry Wilson said he expects to receive the Boone police’s investigation report within weeks. He’ll then decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

“If they bring me a report and it shows criminal activities on the part of anyone, then we will proceed with the necessary paperwork,” Wilson said.

Because of the case’s effect on the Boone community, Wilson said he’d give the Best Western case immediate attention.

Ownership, management

Jeff Welty, an associate professor of public law and government at UNC Chapel Hill, said the district attorney could file involuntary manslaughter charges if he thinks someone acted with extreme negligence.

State law also allows the district attorney to charge a company or its officers. The Best Western is owned by AJD Investments and managed by Appalachian Hospitality Management, records show.

For example, in 1992 – following a fire that killed 25 workers at a chicken processing plant in Hamlet – the factory’s owner pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.

The three hotels under investigation are among a group of Boone hotels owned by family members of the late Ashok Patel, according to property records, N.C. Secretary of State records and court documents.

Secretary of State records list Patel, who committed suicide in January, as the president of AJD Investments. Company officers include his son, Justin Patel; Ashok Patel’s sister, Sangita Nelson; and Damon Mallatere, president of Appalachian Hospitality Management.

In 2007, Appalachian Hospitality Management agreed to lease hotels controlled by Ashok Patel, including the Best Western, Country Inns and Sleep Inn, according to documents filed in a 2011 lawsuit. LeBeau, of the Boone police, said he believed Appalachian Hospitality operated all three hotels under investigation.

It’s not clear whether Patel’s death has affected the hotels’ ownership and management arrangements.

Mallatere referred questions to his attorney, Paul Culpepper. Culpepper did not respond to requests for comment.

Justin Patel did not respond, and Nelson could not be reached.

Meanwhile, Bill Bailey, the town of Boone planning and inspections director, said the Sleep Inn under investigation is one of two hotels in Boone run by Appalachian Hospitality Management that are in the process of replacing pool heaters since the deaths.

The Sleep Inn took out a permit last week to replace a heater in an outdoor pool, and the Super 8 hotel managed by the same company “voluntarily discontinued” use of its indoor pool heater two weeks ago after a contractor had questions about how to replace it, he said. In the case of the Super 8 hotel, the contractor needs to bring in an engineer to design the exhaust system for the pool, and the gas line has been capped in the meantime, he said.

The Super 8 is owned by Jill Atfield Patel, Ashok Patel’s ex-wife, and was previously owned by Ashok Patel, according to property records. Jill Atfield Patel did not respond to a request for comment.

State board inquiry

The state Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors is in the middle of its own probe of the Best Western deaths.

Dale Dawson, the board’s executive director, said an investigator is looking into who installed the pool heater and when.

Dawson said an improperly installed heater leaked the carbon monoxide that killed the three guests.

The Jenkinses died of carbon monoxide poisoning on April 16 after staying in Room 225. Emergency workers found Jeffrey Williams dead and his mother, Jeannie Williams, unconscious in the same room on June 8.

In an email, Darrell Williams said his sister-in-law Jeannie’s health is improving. She is in physical therapy, able to walk with a walker and is trying to regain complete use of her limbs, he said.

“But there is still a long way to go in her recovery,” he said.

Williams said the family’s investigators have met with the district attorney and are awaiting the police department’s investigative report.

He declined to blame specific individuals for the three deaths, but said “the hotel should have never been able to rent that room until the cause of the Jenkinses’ deaths had been fully investigated.”

Mark Brumbaugh, a lawyer who represents the Jenkins family, has said the three deaths were “so unnecessary and avoidable.”

Dawson said his investigator has been in contact with Boone police and would share any findings with them. Key to the state contractor board’s investigation is who installed the pool heater.

Boone’s planning and inspections department had no knowledge of the heater and never issued a permit for it or checked it after installation, as required by state building codes, inspector Todd Miller told the Observer last month.

If a licensed contractor installed the heater, the state could revoke its license. If an unlicensed contractor installed it, the state could prevent it from working further as a contractor.

Rarely do any of the 750 to 900 annual complaints the board investigates deal with fatalities. Dawson said the last fatality case the board investigated took place in the mid-1990s and also involved carbon monoxide.

In that case, the colorless, odorless gas killed two people in a mountain home in Little Switzerland.

Medical examiner system

The deaths have also raised questions about how the Watauga County medical examiner and the state medical examiner’s office responded.

Reports show that Hall, the Watauga County medical examiner, did not view any of the three bodies at the scene – though experts say it’s a critical step in determining how someone died.

Hall also did not ask for an expedited carbon monoxide test of the bodies or the hotel, the state has said. The state says a June 1 report was sent to Hall showing a lethal concentration of carbon monoxide in Shirley Mae Jenkins’ blood. It is unclear why no one took action after that finding.

DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos has said the three deaths “should have never happened” and the state is reviewing what went wrong during the investigation.

But nearly a month after the third death, the state has not revealed its findings. DHHS officials have not specified what steps they plan to prevent future tragedies.

Through a department spokesman, Wos declined an interview request. Staff writers Fred Clasen-Kelly and Ames Alexander contributed.

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