Last spring, three people staying at a Best Western in Boone, North Carolina died in the space of two months while staying in the same room.  It turns out they ingested lethal doses of carbon monoxide from a pool heater that was not only illegally and improperly installed, but was severely out of maintenance.  In other words--these deaths were a criminal act.

Well, earlier today, the first step was taken in getting a measure of justice in this tragedy.  A grand jury in Watauga County, North Carolina indicted the president of the company that formerly owned the hotel on four felony counts related to the poisonings.

A grand jury returned three counts against Damon Mallatere, president of Appalachian Hospitality Management. The jury also indicted Mallatere on a charge of assault inflicting serious bodily injury on a fourth person who was poisoned.

Police and prosecutors ended a news briefing without discussing the indictments, leaving many unanswered questions. Though Mallatere is the only person charged, an Observer investigation uncovered multiple missteps that contributed to the tragedies in the hotel’s Room 225.

Investigators have determined that carbon monoxide from the swimming pool water heater seeped up from a corroded exhaust pipe into the room, killing Daryl and Shirley Jenkins of Washington state in April and 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams of York County in June.

The charge of serious bodily injury relates to what happened to Jeffrey's mother, Jeannie.  Due to being without adequate oxygen for at least 14 hours, she has permanent brain and heart damage, and is suffering from cognitive and mobility problems that will only get worse as the years go on.

Mallatere, who sold the hotels at the end of last year, claims that the real culprit is the company that converted the heater from propane to natural gas.  That claim doesn't withstand serious analysis.  After all, it was Mallatere who failed to get a permit or an inspection to move the heater from another hotel in 2011--one year before it was converted to natural gas.  And it was Mallatere who failed to make sure the workers installed CO detectors despite the manufacturer recommending that CO detectors be installed if the heater was ever used indoors.  And even if the natural gas contractor did a slipshod job of converting the heater from propane, wouldn't you think Mallatere should have had the work inspected before the hotel reopened?  Unless Mallatere can answer those questions, he's looking at between four and 13 years in prison if convicted on all counts.  Somehow I would think it would be closer to 13 years--not only do you have an elderly couple and a child under 15 years old being killed, but you also have a woman who is disabled for life.  And all because Mallatere was too damned cheap, lazy or both to take the most rudimentary steps to make sure his guests were safe.

As many of you know, public officials have their own measure of blame for this tragedy.  The medical examiner failed to expedite tests on the Jenkinses' blood for carbon monoxide, and once the results came back he failed to alert local authorities.  As a result, no one knew the Jenkinses had also died of CO poisoning until a week after Jeffrey's death.  The fire department didn't test the room for carbon monoxide after the Jenkinses died.  However, legal experts say that dereliction of duty isn't enough to prove criminal intent.  They can't rest easy yet--all indications are that the Jenkins and Williams families will file wrongful-death suits.  Given the colossal fails involved, the only question will be how big the jury award will be.

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