Crime

Former Watauga medical examiner’s DWI case goes to court

Investigators determined that carbon monoxide from a faulty swimming pool heating system killed three guests at the Best Western Hotel in Boone.
Investigators determined that carbon monoxide from a faulty swimming pool heating system killed three guests at the Best Western Hotel in Boone. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

A Superior Court judge heard pretrial evidence this week in a DWI case against Dr. Brent Hall, the former medical examiner at the center of three carbon monoxide deaths in a Boone hotel.

Aside from details of Hall drinking Glenlivet Scotch in his barn around midnight one evening, the hearing provided a rare glimpse of the man whose decisions in the 2013 deaths at the Best Western have been criticized.

Hall, 54, has never spoken publicly about the deaths. This week was no exception. “Believe me, I would like to sit down and tell my side of the story,” he said during a break in the DWI hearing. He said lawyers have advised him not to talk.

Hall is a tall man with a lumbering gait. He speaks softly with a mountain drawl, drawing out his vowels.

On the witness stand, he limited most of his answers to questions from attorneys to “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” But occasionally, he interjected colloquial expressions. Asked if he saw two deputies following him on the roadway the night he was arrested for DWI, Hall said, “I was as nervous as a cat. Yes, sir.”

Hall resigned as medical examiner in June 2013, a week after 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Room 225 at the Best Western. Two months earlier, Daryl and Shirley Jenkins of Washington state had died in the same room.

The deadly carbon monoxide was eventually traced to a swimming pool water heating system.

An Observer investigation revealed a series of errors and decisions that led to the tragedies – from the actions of maintenance workers hired by the hotel to the inaction of the medical examiner.

The state took nearly six weeks to determine that carbon monoxide killed the couple. The results were emailed to Hall on Monday, June 3. Even then, no one alerted the public. The next weekend, the poisonous gas leaked into Room 225 again, killing Jeffrey and seriously injuring his mother, Jeannie.

At the time, Hall was medical examiner for Watauga and four other counties. Like most of the state’s medical examiners, he had another full-time job. He works as a private pathologist in Boone, diagnosing disease and performing autopsies.

A 5-year-old case

Hall’s arrest for DWI took place three years before the deaths at the Best Western.

Defense attorneys contend that the deputies worked together to “set up” Hall for arrest. Judge Gary Gavenus indicated that he would rule later this week on the motion to dismiss the charge.

Court documents show that Hall’s blood alcohol level was 0.19 – more than twice the legal limit. That fact was not part of the evidence in the pretrial hearing. Hall said he has not drunk alcohol in more than four years.

Hall was pulled over in rural Watauga County at 1:28 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2010, a Thursday morning. He was convicted in District Court in 2011 and appealed to Superior Court, where the case was postponed 20 times before being called for motions Monday.

In the past, it was former prosecutors who did not want the case resolved, according to attorney Robert Speed, who represented Hall in District Court. If Hall was convicted in Superior Court, Speed said prosecutors worried that defense attorneys would make sure that fact was known to jurors in criminal cases where Hall testified as medical examiner. Prosecutors worried, Speed said, that jurors would discount Hall’s testimony because of a DWI conviction.

But when newly-elected District Attorney Seth Banks attempted to have the case heard earlier this year, it was Speed who fought for a continuance. Then on Monday, defense attorney Jay Vannoy asked that the charge be dismissed. He argued that Hall’s arrest amounted to an illegal seizure.

Watauga County Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Billings testified that he was preparing to stake out a narcotics suspect when he spotted a white Toyota 4Runner outside a barn in rural Watauga County and saw a man pacing in front of the headlights. He said he thought it might be a break-in and stopped to investigate.

The man identified himself as Hall and said he owned the property. Billings testified that Hall had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and appeared intoxicated. He said he told Hall not to drive on public roads.

Billings and another deputy testified that later that evening Hall drove by while they were staking out the narcotics suspect. They said Hall was speeding, crossed the center line several times and crossed over the fog line twice. When he was pulled over, they said, Hall slurred his speech, had bloodshot eyes and stumbled when he walked. He failed field sobriety tests, they said.

Leland: 704-358-5074

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