Crime & Courts

Best Western carbon monoxide case postponed

Damon Mallatere listens as his attorney addresses the judge during a 2014 court hearing in Boone.
Damon Mallatere listens as his attorney addresses the judge during a 2014 court hearing in Boone. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

The criminal case against the former manager of the Best Western where three guests died of carbon monoxide poisoning was postponed again Tuesday to give prosecutors and defense attorneys time to discuss the charges.

It was unclear whether they will talk about routine procedure or whether there may be negotiations afoot. The case against Damon Mallatere has been considered problematic ever since he was indicted in January 2014.

Mallatere, 51, was charged with manslaughter in the 2013 deaths of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins and of Jeffrey Williams, and with assault in the poisoning of Jeannie Williams. The Jenkinses died at the hotel in April 2013.

Two months later, in the same room, 11-year-old Jeffrey died and his mother suffered severe injuries.

The government would have to prove that Mallatere’s actions overseeing hotel maintenance workers rose to the level of what is known as culpable negligence – in other words, that he acted recklessly, putting another person at risk.

But in testimony before a state regulatory board last year, Mallatere was the only person mentioned who took specific actions that might have prevented the second set of poisonings.

Mallatere was supposed to be arraigned Tuesday and enter a plea. He drove 13 hours from his home in Florida to do it. However, prosecutor Matt Rupp asked the court to reschedule the case for July 6. He said, “The state and defense are still in the process of discussing this case.”

If and when he is arraigned, Mallatere said he would plead not guilty.

After the Jenkinses died in Room 225 at the Best Western, he asked the maintenance supervisor to have someone check for natural gas leaks in two places: the fireplace in the room where they stayed and the swimming pool water heater on the floor below. A contractor said everything was working.

“We had no visit from any authorities after the Jenkinses’ deaths,” Mallatere said.

“Not from the fire department. Not from the health department. Not the building department. And, to my knowledge, the police never came back to the scene. Based on their lack of concern and the inspections done for me by DJ’s Heating and Air, I did not believe there was any issue in that room.”

Mallatere said he was told by a police detective that authorities suspected heart attacks.

After Jeffrey Williams died and his mother suffered serious injuries, investigators 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 the fireplace, and possibly also through the heating and air conditioning unit.

An Observer investigation uncovered a series of errors and decisions that led to the tragedies – from the actions of maintenance workers to the inaction of the local medical examiner.

Everybody involved should feel some responsibility, Mallatere said Tuesday. But he added that he didn’t believe anybody was guilty of criminal action.

Mallatere is also a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed in February by the Jenkins family. Other defendants include Best Western International as well as a gas company and the local heating technician who worked on the swimming pool heating system. The Williams family is expected to file its own lawsuit soon.

Leland: 704-358-5074

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