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Businessman charged in Boone hotel deaths posts $40,000 bond

By Gavin Off and Rick Rothacker
goff@charlotteobserver.com rrothacker@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/10/13/18/sCBDK.Em.138.jpeg|316
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Damon Mallatere (center) with his attorney, David Freedman (right), turned himself in on Friday January 10, 2014 after being served with an indictment for involuntary manslaughter. He is the former manager of the Boone Best Western Inn where three people died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/10/13/18/1nK2hL.Em.138.jpeg|186
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Damon Mallatere (center left) with his attorney, David Freedman, turned himself in on Friday January 10, 2014 after being served with an indictment for involuntary manslaughter. He is the former manager of the Boone Best Western Inn where three people died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/10/13/18/1eWnFb.Em.138.jpeg|476
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Damon Mallatere (pictured here) with his attorney, David Freedman, made bond after turning himself in on Friday January 10, 2014. He was served with an indictment for involuntary manslaughter. He is the former manager of the Boone Best Western Inn where three people died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/10/12/11/jDQlP.Em.138.JPG|236
    -
    Damon Mallatere, right, and his attorney.

BOONE The businessman charged in last year’s carbon monoxide deaths at a Boone hotel posted a $40,000 bond on Friday and through his attorney expressed sympathy to the victims’ families.

A grand jury on Wednesday indicted Damon Mallatere on three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of assault inflicting serious injury. As president of Appalachian Hospitality Management, he ran the Best Western where the deaths occurred and four other Boone hotels.

A police investigation determined that carbon monoxide escaped from a swimming pool water heater exhaust pipe into Room 225 of the Best Western, killing Daryl and Shirley Jenkins in April and 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams in June. Jeffrey’s mother, Jeannie, was seriously injured.

Mallatere, 50, of Blowing Rock, arrived at the Watauga County magistrate’s office at 11:30 a.m., flanked by two attorneys. He did not speak with reporters, but lawyer David Freedman fielded questions after his client posted bond.

“His heart goes out to the families of the people who passed away,” said Freedman. “Regardless of what he’s going through, it can’t compare to what they go through every day.”

Mallatere pleaded not guilty and intends to seek a trial, Freedman said. He is scheduled to be arraigned on Feb. 17.

Freedman, who has represented high-profile clients such as former NASCAR driver Jeremy Mayfield, said he has not seen any of the evidence assembled by prosecutors and didn’t know when he would.

“At no time during any of his actions did he have any criminal intent whatsoever,” Freedman said, adding: “We have strong faith in the judicial system. The process needs to play out.”

Freedman asked the public to think of Mallatere as innocent until proven guilty.

After he was indicted Wednesday, another attorney for Mallatere said the businessman was “extremely disappointed” that authorities pressed charges against him, instead of a firm he considers more culpable – the gas company that converted the pool heater from propane to natural gas in 2012.

“It appears the conversion was not properly performed, and this led directly to extremely high levels of carbon monoxide being produced by the pool heater,” attorney Paul Culpepper of Hickory said.

The Observer reported in August that the hotel contracted with Independence Oil & Gas to convert its appliances and that Boone inspectors had approved the work in March 2012.

Darryl Knight, of Independence Oil, said Friday that the company pulled proper permits for the work and passed the town’s inspection.

“Mr. Mallatere was indicted by the grand jury,” Knight said. “I believe now he is trying to deflect that and push it onto Independence Oil. Obviously, we weren’t indicted and did everything right. The grand jury indictment speaks for itself.”

Attorneys for Independence have talked with Boone police, Knight said. “To the best of my knowledge, we have been cleared in this investigation,” he said.

A company called Gas Natural bought Independence in 2011 but sold Independence’s assets to Blue Ridge Energies in November 2013. The shell of the company and any liability remains with Gas Natural, Knight said. The sale occurred after Blue Ridge Energies approached Independence in June, he said.

Gas Natural is also the parent company of Frontier Natural Gas, which serves Watauga and five other counties.

‘Reckless manner’

On Thursday, Britt Springer, assistant district attorney for Watauga County, told the Observer that many other people “acted in a careless and reckless manner” in the hotel deaths, but she stopped short of saying she would seek additional indictments. Springer declined to name others at fault.

Investigations by the Observer and by authorities, however, have uncovered multiple missteps that contributed to the deaths.

Among them: Hotel employees, who were not licensed, installed a used water heater at the Best Western in 2011 before the conversion by Independence. After the Jenkinses died in April, the Fire Department did not test the room for carbon monoxide, and the medical examiner did not expedite toxicology tests.

Springer said town inspectors were checking to see whether there were any other problems with natural gas conversions done by Independence Oil.

Knight said he doesn’t think there are any problems, but he “encouraged them to look at any conversions.” He said he wasn’t aware of any additional inspections taking place and didn’t have information available on how many conversions Independence has done in Boone.

“This is a tragedy,” Knight added. “I hope that this would just be something that could be prevented in the future. Our hearts go out to the families.”

It’s uncommon for executives to face criminal charges stemming from deaths on business property, legal experts say. But they were not surprised that public officials avoided indictment. Failure to do your job properly, they said, does not generally meet the elements of involuntary manslaughter – which requires that someone acted recklessly and with disregard for the consequences.

Rothacker: 704-358-5170; @rickrothacker
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