After a brief court hearing Tuesday, an attorney for the former manager of the Best Western said his client will plead not guilty to carbon monoxide poisonings at the hotel.
“All accidental deaths are not the result of criminal conduct,” said attorney Dudley Witt of Winston-Salem. “... I think that’s a high burden of proof the state has.”
When the case comes to trial, and jurors hear evidence and a judge instructs them on the law, Witt said he believes they will find no criminal liability on Damon Mallatere’s part.
Mallatere is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins and of Jeffrey Williams, and with assault inflicting serious bodily injury in the poisoning of Jeannie Williams. The Jenkinses died at the hotel in April. Two months later, in the same room, 11-year-old Jeffrey died and his mother suffered severe injuries.
After the second set of poisonings, authorities discovered deadly levels of carbon monoxide spewing from the swimming pool water heater on the floor below. The gas seeped through holes in a corroded exhaust pipe and up into Room 225 through holes in the fireplace, and possibly through the heating and air conditioning unit.
An Observer investigation found shortcuts and violations in the way the water heater was installed. Photographs from a state licensing board revealed pipes with rusted holes and pipes held together by tape. A ice bucket was propped under one pipe, a VHS tape under another.
The prosecution is expected to present evidence that Mallatere violated building codes that required him to obtain a permit before having the used water heater installed and required him to properly maintain the heater.
It will be up to a jury to decide whether his actions rose to the level of what is known as culpable negligence – in other words, that he acted recklessly, putting another person at risk.
Because of the voluminous amount of discovery in the case, Superior Court Judge C. Philip Ginn set the next court date two months away, on April 21. Provided the defense has received all discovery from the state by then, Witt said Mallatere could enter his plea that day.
Ginn recused himself from hearing any substantive issues because he said Mallatere is a former client and friend. He said he could rule on routine matters such as scheduling dates for hearings, and on other matters if attorneys for both side agreed. Another judge will preside over the trial.