Scene not examined in Boone hotel deaths

frkelly@charlotteobserver.com goff@charlotteobserver.comJune 12, 2013 

No state medical examiner visited the Boone hotel room where an elderly couple died in April – even though experts say inspecting the death scene is a crucial step in determining how a person died.

It took nearly two months and the death of an 11-year-old Rock Hill boy in the same room last weekend before authorities said carbon monoxide poisoning killed the couple.

On Wednesday, Watauga Medics Inc. Director Craig Sullivan told the Observer the medical examiner’s office requested emergency workers transport the bodies of Daryl Dean Jenkins, 73, and Shirley Mae Jenkins, 72, to a hospital instead of visiting the death scene to seek clues.

North Carolina does not require medical examiners to go to death scenes. But experts from other states say it is especially critical for medical examiners to view bodies at death scenes in possible carbon monoxide cases.

“The scene is where you’re going to find out how the carbon monoxide got there,” said Dr. Todd Grey, chief medical examiner for Utah. “It’s mandatory if you want to know how the person died.”

Jeffrey Williams was found dead in bed Saturday at Boone’s Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza in Room 225. Police have said he died of asphyxia, though blood tests were not complete. Elevated levels of carbon monoxide were detected in the room.

His uncle, Darrell Williams, said in an email Wednesday that he blames the state medical examiner system for the boy’s death. Williams said it should not have taken officials about two months to produce blood test results showing the Jenkinses died from carbon monoxide.

“Jeffrey’s death was preventable,” Williams wrote. “If the toxicology results had arrived in a timely manner, my nephew would be alive today. The results would have shown that the Jenkins(es) died of CO exposure and the government should have restricted the hotel from renting that room and others around it.”

Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees death investigations, would not answer questions about the death cases.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that blocks the blood’s ability to carry oxygen through the body. It can lead to severe illness and death.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the N.C. State Board of Examiner of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinklers investigated the hotel Wednesday.

Officials said the pool heater, located in a mechanical room directly below Room 225, where the deaths occurred, might have released the carbon monoxide. They said the deadly gas entered the hotel room either through a wall-mounted HVAC unit or an opening for a gas fireplace.

Boone police asked anyone who stayed in Room 225 to call 828-268-6900.

Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs told the Observer that his department responded in April when the Jenkinses died. Isaacs said there were no obvious signs of deadly concentrations of carbon monoxide in the room at that time.

But the department does not keep carbon monoxide detectors on their engines and did not use equipment to test for the gas, he said.

Isaacs said he is now considering several policy changes, including putting carbon monoxide detectors on all fire engines.

States and counties with leading death investigation systems often mandate medical examiners to go to death scenes. They take pictures with digital cameras, interview witnesses and send reports and other information to offices on laptop computers.

It was not immediately clear who was assigned to investigate the deaths of Jeffrey Williams and the Jenkinses. Watauga County has four medical examiners that look into suspicious and unnatural deaths, according to 2012 state records.

It’s unclear if any of them went to the scene when Jeffrey died last weekend.

But in the past 10 years, medical examiners in Watauga County failed to view bodies at death scenes in roughly 94 percent of the cases, state data show.

Statewide, North Carolina medical examiners do not view bodies at death scenes about 91 percent of the time, according to an Observer analysis.

In Utah, death investigators must visit scenes, said Grey, the chief medical examiner. They carry carbon monoxide detectors as part of their standard equipment, he said.

North Carolina often depends on law enforcement to gather information, but police and other agencies lack specialized training needed to look for the cause of death, Grey said.

“You would think that someone trained in death investigation would see that body has a pink glow and say ‘Hmm, that’s carbon monoxide,’” Grey said.

J.C. Upshaw Downs, a medical examiner in Savannah, Ga., said reviewing the scene was important but not always possible.

“Ideally, you would have somebody from the ME office go (to the scene) all the time,” Upshaw Downs said. “The reality is that may not be what happens in any particular jurisdiction based on the resources they have.”

Off: 704 358-6038 Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027

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