Turmoil came before the tragedies at Boone hotel
07/13/2013 6:26 PM
07/13/2013 7:03 PM
In December, Ashok Patel, whose family had amassed a group of Boone hotels over three decades, took the podium at a town council meeting to criticize officials for zoning and stormwater issues that he said were ruining his business.
Among the family’s hotels in recent years, the Scottish Inn had been condemned over building code violations, the Hampton Inn had been seized by the bank, and the Red Carpet Inn had been the scene of an accident in whicha 7-year-old boy died.
Patel wouldn’t live long enough to experience the next blow to the business. He killed himself in January, just months before three guests at the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Officials have concluded a pool heater likely released the carbon monoxide that caused the deaths of a Washington state couple, Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, in April, and 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams of Rock Hill in June. Williams’ mother, Jeannie, was hospitalized and is struggling to recover.
The deaths have spurred scrutiny of the Best Western’s operations and raised questions about how police, fire officials and medical examiners conducted their investigation of the Jenkinses’ deaths. Jeffrey Williams died in the same room less than two months later.
Boone police are investigating the Best Western and two hotels run by the same management because some employees worked at all three hotels. Some of the hotels also shared equipment, police have said.
The heater at the Best Western appears to have been moved from the Sleep Inn run by the same management, said Bill Bailey, director of Boone’s planning and inspections department. Former employees told the Observer it was common for the hotels to swap equipment.
Police are expected to turn their report over to prosecutors in coming weeks. Watauga County District Attorney Jerry Wilson has said he will review the report to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.
The ownership and management of the Best Western also could face legal action from the families of the victims.
“Clearly someone should be held accountable,” said Mark Brumbaugh, the Washington state lawyer representing the Jenkins family. “Obviously corners were cut in the installation of that pool heater. But it remains to be seen who should be held accountable for cutting those corners.”
Patel family members and an attorney for Appalachian Hospitality Management, which runs the Best Western and other family hotels, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Best Western, which is closed, was once part of an expanding group of hotels that dominated the Boone market, according to court documents and people familiar with the hotels. But in the past decade, the group had undergone management changes, suffered financially in the recession and tangled with local officials over building code violations.
While hotels carry national brands, they are typically individually owned and operated, like restaurant franchises.
When he appeared before the town council, Patel listed eight family-owned hotels in Boone. Many of the establishments, including the Best Western, are owned by a web of companies led by Patel, according to N.C. Secretary of State records. Others, including the Red Carpet Inn and Scottish Inn, are held by companies led by Patel’s ex-wife, Jill Atfield Patel, according to property records and a 2008 divorce settlement.
In recent years, some of the family properties had been cited for stormwater and building code violations, which had spurred complaints from Patel, said Bailey, the planning and inspections director.
“Ashok referenced that he thought he was being picked on,” Bailey said. “The reality was that he had so many properties, and some of them were of an age that they were failing.”
Patel was born in 1958 in Loughborough, England, to parents from India, according to an obituary in the High Country Press. After graduating from the Royal College of Science, he visited the United States on a vacation with his father and discovered Boone.
Patel also built connections to the Charlotte area. He married Jill Atfield in York County in October 1981, according to his divorce settlement, and one of his companies owned the Ascot Inn, a former Charlotte hotel known for heart-shaped Jacuzzis. It was demolished in 2011, and the property was sold to the owners of the nearby Uptown Cabaret gentleman’s club.
Over time, Patel accumulated hotels in Boone by buying them, selling some and building new ones, said Mac Forehand, the retired director of the Boone Convention and Visitors Bureau. Eventually, he owned about half of the rooms in town, he said.
“He always impressed me as one of the smartest guys in Boone,” Forehand said.
Boone developer Kenneth Wilcox said Patel once sold one of his hotels but took it back over when it struggled. Patel paid all the debts the previous owner had incurred, even though he wasn’t obligated to. “I always thought that said a lot about the man,” Wilcox said.
Patel’s expansion efforts didn’t always work out.
In 2005, he and a partner, Damon Mallatere, leased land in Boone for a planned Courtyard by Marriott, but they never built the hotel, according to a 2011 lawsuit. The suit, filed by the landowners in Watauga County Superior Court, claims that the partners leased the land as a ploy to pressure the Hampton Inn across the street to sell. Patel later bought the hotel at a discounted rate, the suit states.
The landowners were fooled “to keep the property off the market as part of defendant’s broader goal to monopolize the hotel industry in Boone so they could control prices and raise rates across the city,” the suit states.
Patel in a letter filed in the lawsuit said he had dropped out of the deal by the time it was abandoned. Mallatere has sought to have the suit dismissed, alleging the plaintiffs did not comply with terms in the lease, according to court filings. The trial is scheduled for October.
‘He was the glue’
Mallatere would go out on his own in 2007 when he started Appalachian Hospitality Management and agreed to lease some of Patel’s hotels, including the Best Western, according to the suit. Around that time, Patel was divorcing his wife, remarrying and moving to the Washington, D.C., area, according to the letter filed with the suit.
Mallatere had been a Patel employee and a “point man” in his development efforts, according to the suit. He had come to Boone in 1988, according to a post on his Facebook page, and previously attended Isothermal Community College, which serves Polk and Rutherford counties, but never received a degree, according to the school.
In an email filed in the 2011 lawsuit, Mallatere shared his view on hotels, saying the land was a “big deal.”
“We look at a hotel as a way to pay for land,” he wrote. “In twenty years time when the building has been depreciated and the usefulness of the property and the income has faded, the dirt remains.”
At Appalachian Hospitality Management, Mallatere, now 50, handled the business and deal-making side of things, while another partner, Jim Wooten, an experienced hotel general manager, would handle operations, said Forehand, the retired tourism director.
Two former employees said they enjoyed working for Wooten but that Mallatere was more focused on making money than taking care of workers. Wooten left the company before the deaths, they said. Wooten could not be reached for comment.
“He was the glue who kept the company together,” one former employee said of Wooten.
Meth lab in Room 107
After moving, Patel came to Boone every month or two and tried to run his companies from long distance, according to the letter filed in the lawsuit. In October 2008, he became entangled with a legal dispute with Mallatere that “crippled” him financially, he also wrote.
“I do miss being in the hotel business but felt like I got burned badly with my dealings with Damon,” Patel wrote in an email to the landowners who filed the 2011 suit. “He ended up leveraging me to the tune of over $4,000,000.00 over the next 20 years.”
Meanwhile, problems would escalate at the Patel family properties.
In August 2010, 7-year-old Bryson Alexander Cox, who was attending a party at the Red Carpet Inn’s outdoor pool, fell into a culvert next to a hotel “common area.” The rushing waters of Boone Creek pulled Cox underground, and his body was found 1,400 feet downstream, according to a lawsuit filed in 2012 against the hotel and other parties.
Jill Atfield Patel and an attorney representing her did not respond to a request for comment. An attorney representing the estate of Ashok Patel and another landowner declined to comment.
Less than a year later, in April 2012, the Boone town council upheld a condemnation order issued by the planning and inspections department for the Scottish Inn, which is adjacent to the Red Carpet Inn. The order found problems with steps to the second floor, a bearing wall and the roof of a restaurant that had suffered a fire, among other issues. The owners were also ordered to clean up “meth lab conditions” in Room 107.
The town has since ordered the building, which is cordoned off by chain link fencing, demolished by the end of this year.
Patel told the Boone town council that losing the Scottish Inn affected the cash flow of his family’s businesses. He was unable to refinance loans on two of his other hotels, the La Quinta Inns & Suites and Sleep Inn, and later lost the Hampton Inn to the bank.
On Jan. 9, Patel’s family reported him missing and an investigation by Boone police found a suicide note, according to a police report. Police found Patel’s green Chevrolet Tahoe parked in the Grandview Overlook parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The hotelier was found 60 feet down the embankment, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the report.
Bailey, the town inspections director, said a few days after the suicide, Mallatere came to his office. Bailey offered his condolences, and Mallatere broke down.
Mallatere is trying to sell the hotels, a source told the Observer.
“Ashok was a good person,” said one former employee. “He ran good properties when he was in town. When he turned over management of the company, it went downhill quickly.” Staff writers Ames Alexander and Gavin Off contributed.
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