In an emotional resolution to a tragic case, manslaughter charges were dismissed Monday against the manager of the Best Western hotel where three guests died of carbon monoxide poisoning. In exchange, his former company accepted blame.
The plea agreement could make it easier for families to collect damages in wrongful-death lawsuits filed against Appalachian Hospitality Management.
But it did nothing to ease their heartbreak.
It’s been almost three years since 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams died in the hotel, but his mother said the family will never find closure. Jeannie Williams recalled cradling him in her arms on the day he was born and struggled to hold back tears as she told the court:
“Jeffrey is the first thing I think about in the morning, and the last thing I think about before I go to bed. I ask God to give me His strength to get through each day without my sweet Jeffrey.”
District Attorney Seth Banks said he hoped Appalachian Hospitality Management pleading guilty to three counts of manslaughter will resonate with other businesses – that “if they choose to value making money at the expense of public safety, they will be held to account.”
According to hotel employees, Banks said, upper-level management cut corners at the Best Western to save money, turning “a seemingly innocent hotel into a deathtrap.”
Daryl and Shirley Jenkins had traveled to this tourist town in the Blue Ridge Mountains in April 2013 to visit cousins. They died on their second night in Room 225 at the Best Western.
Less than six weeks later, Jeffrey died in the same room and Jeannie Williams was seriously injured after lying unconscious on the bathroom floor for more than 14 hours. They had been on their way to pick up Jeffrey’s sister, Breanne, from camp.
The two families, from opposite ends of the country, did what many of us routinely do: They checked into a hotel, assuming that once inside their room for the night, they would be safe.
It was only after Jeffrey was found dead in the bed that authorities discovered a carbon monoxide leak in the swimming pool water-heating system on the floor below.
In a chilling comparison, Kris Hauschildt, daughter of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, estimated in court what it might have cost to replace the faulty heater and ventilation system: $4,341.74.
“What we have lost,” she said, “is immeasurable.”
Errors resulted in deaths
Damon Mallatere, who managed the Best Western, was indicted in January 2014 on charges of manslaughter in the three deaths and a charge of assault in the poisoning of Jeannie Williams.
But, from the beginning, the case was considered problematic.
The Observer uncovered a series of errors and decisions by many different people, including hotel management, town employees and the local medical examiner. Testimony before a state regulatory board indicated Mallatere was the only one who took action that might have prevented the second set of poisonings.
The plea bargain was hammered out between Banks and defense attorney David Freedman. Banks said that under the law no one individual was guilty but that the collective decisions of Appalachian Hospitality Management amounted to criminal wrongdoing.
So the charges against Mallatere were dropped. The company pleaded guilty to three counts of manslaughter. Judge Alan Thornburg ordered the corporation dissolved.
“On behalf of the corporation, are you in fact guilty?” Thornburg asked Mallatere.
“Yes,” he responded.
Freedman offered an apology to the families. But he said he hoped other people would also step forward and admit responsibility.
Both Banks and Freedman noted that Town of Boone inspectors approved a faulty conversion of the swimming pool water heater from propane to natural gas.
They pointed out that the medical examiner did not read an email from state toxicologists confirming carbon monoxide poisoning in one of the first deaths until after Jeffrey died.
In addition to “poor business practices” at the hotel, Banks cited “missed opportunities by private and governmental organizations.”
Justice for families
Though a company obviously can’t be sent to prison, the guilty pleas could have a bearing on wrongful death suits the two families filed against Mallatere and Appalachian Hospital.
The lawsuits also seek damages from Best Western International and the hotel’s owners, as well as from companies and individuals who worked on the heating system where the gas originated.
“Justice for our families will not be served until all parties are held accountable for their respective roles in the deaths of Daryl, Shirley and Jeffrey, and the permanent injury to Jeannie at the Boone Best Western,” the two families said in a joint press release.
“It is our hope and expectation that our civil action will continue to bring to light the facts of what happened at that hotel so that it is never allowed to happen again.”
After the deaths, the N.C. General Assembly adopted a new law requiring carbon monoxide alarms in certain areas of hotels near fossil fuel burning appliances.
But both families are advocating for a federal requirement of carbon detectors in every hotel room in the United States. Jeffrey’s parents formed a nonprofit to push for the mandate.
Promise of 3 lives ended
Details of the plea agreement unfolded in dry legal terms. But as family members talked about their loss, courtroom observers wept.
Hauschildt and her brother, Doug Jenkins described their father, 73, as a Renaissance man who loved to camp, fish, boat, golf, cross country ski as well as carve wood, make jewelry and garden. He was a retired psychologist. At his funeral, a client recalled that she couldn’t afford to pay him, so he suggested she bake cookies instead.
Their mother, 72, was the family caretaker, a master at the art of multitasking and also at cooking rhubarb sauce. She retired after 30 years as an office manager.
Their trip to Boone was part of “their retirement journey.”
“Just to hear their voices was a comfort,” Jenkins said. “Each year that passes, their voices seem harder and harder to remember what they sounded like.”
Jeffrey had his life ahead of him. He loved being with family and friends. He liked technology and helping people. He also enjoyed staying in hotels – especially ones with pools. That’s why Jeannie Williams picked the Best Western.
Their room was directly above the pool with its faulty heating system leaking deadly carbon monoxide. Within less than an hour of checking in, Jeffrey was dead.
As a baby, Jeffrey was safe and secure in her arms, Jeannie Williams said. Now she aches to hear his voice and feel his touch.
Among her last words in court: “I love you, Jeffrey.”
Statement from the Jenkins and Williams families
Our families wish to thank District Attorney Seth Banks and the Watauga County District Attorney’s office for working so diligently on behalf of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins and Jeffrey and Jeannie Williams to bring resolution to this case.
This plea agreement brings closure to the criminal phase. However, justice for our families will not be served until all parties are held accountable for their respective roles in the deaths of Daryl, Shirley and Jeffrey, and the permanent injury to Jeannie at the Boone Best Western. It is our hope and expectation that our civil action will continue to bring to light the facts of what happened at that hotel so that it is never allowed to happen again.
We continue to advocate for a federal mandatory requirement of carbon monoxide detectors in every hotel room in the United States. Currently only 12 states require installation of carbon monoxide detectors in hotels and motels under statute.