January 5, 2012
In the past we have seen how gelatin, ice cream trucks, raw chickens and vanilla extract have figured in to the criminal behavior those who think they can live outside the law. Food crimes don’t seem to be letting up, as evidenced by the following four incidents.
December, 2011. Port Richey, Florida. A pint and a bank job.
On the afternoon of December 22, John Robin Whittle ordered a beer at the Hayloft Bar, but left for approximately half and hour and then returned to down the drink. He was soon arrested by local authorities: Whittle fit the description of a man who robbed a nearby Wells Fargo bank but ten minutes before.
October, 2011. Punta Gorda, Florida. A slippery situation.
Why steal used cooking oil? This restaurant waste product can be converted into biofuel and on the open market it can command as much as four dollars a gallon. On the evening of October 17, two men were spotted behind a Burger King pumping cooking oil into their collection truck; however, their vehicle did not belong to Griffin Industries, the usual company that picked up the oil. The two drivers explained that the regular collection truck had broken down, but on calling Griffin Industries, the restaurant manager learned that none of their trucks were in the area collecting oil. By this time the two drivers had left with approximately $1,500 worth of oil. The manager called the police, who spotted the truck at a Golden Corral, again siphoning off used cooking oil. Two men, Javier Abad and Antonio Hernandez, were arrested and charged with grand theft. (And for a lighter take on this trend in food crime, check out the “Simpsons” episode “Lard of the Dance,” where Bart and Homer conjure up a get-rich-quick scheme by stealing grease.)
Marysville, Tennessee. July, 2004. Would you like extra cheese on that?
At about 5:00 in the morning on July 18, Marysville, Tennessee police discovered a car abandoned in the parking lot of the John Sevier Pool containing a pile of clothes and a bottle of vodka. A thoroughly intoxicated Michael David Monn, the owner of the car and the articles therein, was soon spotted running toward the authorities wearing nothing but nacho cheese. The 23-year-old had apparently jumped a wall to raid the pool’s concession area. In March, 2005 Monn pleaded guilty to burglary, theft, vandalism, indecent exposure and public intoxication. He was sentenced to three years probation and a $400 fine to cover the costs of the stolen food.
Santiago, Chile. 2004. Hot Stuff.
In 2004, Chilean hospitals began treating people for burns incurred after attempting to make churros, the treat of fried dough coated in sugar. In each case, the dough shot out of the pot, showering the chefs with hot oil. The injuries came days after La Tercera, a daily newspaper, printed a churro recipe—but neglected to test it. In December 2011, the Chilean Supreme Court determined that the suggested oil temperature was far too high and that anyone following the recipe to the letter would have ended up with dangerously explosive results. The newspaper’s publisher, Grupo Copesa, was ordered to pay out $125,000 to 13 burn victims, including one woman whose injuries so severe that she was awarded a $48,000 settlement.
October 6, 2011
I’m somewhat shocked and appalled that human behavior allows for recurring blog posts on criminal behavior involving food. Not that I’m one to complain about my muse. The month of September alone was rife with new shenanigans, and a couple of convictions, from society’s dark underbelly.
September, 2011. Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The raw food movement?
On the afternoon of Monday, September 12, Wal-Mart security officers saw a man opening packages of raw hamburger and stew beef and eating some of the contents before putting the items back on the shelf. Police were contacted and arrested Scott Shover, 53, at taser point and charged him with felony theft. While only about $25 worth of meat was involved in this particular incident, Shover received the felony charge as this was his fifth retail theft offense.
September, 2011. Mount Prospect, Illinois. A Late Night Snack.
When most people get hungry in the middle of the night, they make a beeline for the kitchen. Hachem Gomez, 19, preferred to make a 3:00 a.m. trip out to Mr. Beef and Pizza. No matter that the restaurant was closed and the drive-through window was barred: Gomez broke through the security grating to gain access to the kitchen, where he began to prepare himself chicken tenders and fries in the microwave. Officers arrived on the scene at 3:30, and when asked if he worked there, Gomez simply said no and that he was just hungry. He was arrested and charged with burglary.
August, 2011. Denver, Colorado. Bring out your dead.
In the 1989 movie comedy Weekend at Bernie’s, two men, promised a ritzy weekend at their boss’ weekend home, arrive to find their boss dead, but decide to tote the corpse around so that they can enjoy the few days of luxury they felt entitled to. According to police reports, on the evening of August 27, Robert Young, 43, arrived at the home of Jeffrey Jarrett, only to find the man unresponsive. In lieu of calling 911, Young, along with friend Mark Rubinson, 25, piled the corpse into a car and went to Teddy T’s Bar and Grill. Jarrett was left in the car while the other two enjoyed libations charged to his card. Next stop was Sam’s No. 3, a diner, before they returned Jarret’s corpse to his house. Young and Rubinson next made a pit stop at a strip club, using Jarrett’s ATM card to withdraw $400, and before the night was over, they flagged down a police officer notifying him that they suspected their buddy was dead in his home. The pair was later arrested, and while they are not suspected of causing Jarrett’s death, they stand charged with abusing a corpse, identity theft and criminal impersonation. Both men were released on bail. Young has an arraignment date set for October 6. Rubinson has since been arrested again for drunk driving. He also happened to be driving in a stolen vehicle, but whether he was the one who snatched it has yet to be determined.
September, 2010. Denver, Colorado. Playing chicken.
To some, like The New York Times, raw chicken evokes l’amour in a big way. But 58-year-old lobbyist Ronald Smith was feeling less than amorous when he placed raw chicken in the heating ducts of his ex-wife’s home. (Other non-food-related acts of vandalism included wiping the hard drive of her computer, pouring bleach on her grand piano and marring her hardwood floors with mountain bike cleats.) Michelle Young, the former Mrs. Smith, discovered the damage on returning from a California vacation. It was allegedly the culmination of months of harassment, and while prosecutors could not produce eyewitnesses to definitively place Smith at the scene, they were, however, able to illustrate that the blue duct tape used to package the chicken pieces matched the roll of duct tape found in Smith’s home. Jurors deliberated for about six hours before arriving at their decision. Smith was convicted in September 2011 of second degree burglary and criminal mischief and is awaiting sentencing. He could face up to 18 years in prison.
January 2010. Leeds, England. A big break.
On the evening of January 30, Hussein Yusuf had been drinking at a local pub when he asked the chef, Roger Mwebiha, to cook him a meal. After repeatedly entering the kitchen asking if his food was ready yet, Mwebiha got fed up to the point where he returned Yusuf’s money. At 3:00 a.m. the following morning, Yusuf again asked the chef to prepare him some food and the two began to argue. Mwebiha went to take out the trash when he was confronted outside by Yusuf, who kicked the chef’s right shin, shattering both lower leg bones. Yusuf fled the scene while Mwebiha spent months recuperating from the injury. But about a year later, in a logic-defying move, Yusuf returned to the restaurant. The chef recognized his attacker and notified police. Yusuf, 23, admitted to the crime and was sentenced in September 2011. He is currently serving a 15-month prison term.
September 13, 2011
Food is a basic human need and humans are prone to unusual behavior. That combination has provided fodder for several blog posts that take a look at people behaving badly with edibles. Once again we’re serving up a helping of criminal behavior involving food and the food industry.
Kalamazoo, Michigan. September, 2011. Dine, dash and defraud.
Stacy Skartsiaris, 65, had been the owner of Theo and Stacy’s restaurant for 38 years and had never had a problem with customer violence until the morning of September 1. Two women, Deaunka Lynn Dunning and Sheba Jean Kirk, both 30, stopped by the downtown restaurant for breakfast, but as they went to leave with doggie bags in tow, they complained about the quality of the food and informed Skartsiaris that they were not going to pay for the meal. Skartsiaris followed them as they left and said she was going to call police. That’s when the pair allegedly attacked her, kicking her in the midsection and striking her face, leaving her with bumps and bruises. The belligerent pair was eventually arrested and charged with aggravated assault and defrauding an innkeeper. They are due back in court on September 14 for pretrial hearings.
Carlisle, Pennsylvania. August, 2011. BYOB (Bring Your Own… Bag?).
In a push to cut down on plastic usage and be more environmentally friendly, many grocery stores are encouraging customers to bring in reusable bags. Some people interpret the term “reusable bag” fairly loosely, subbing their pants for a traditional shopping bag. Donald Noone, 65, is one of those people. While intoxicated, he went to a Giant grocery store and tried to secret about $20 worth of ribs down his trousers. He was arrested and charged with retail theft and public drunkenness. Turns out he’s also a repeat offender: he tried pulling the exact same stunt back in May. Noone plead guilty to the charges.
Patton Township, Pennsylvania. August, 2011. Something “borrowed.”
Planning what foods to serve at a wedding reception is a big deal—and can be a big chunk of your budget. One Pennsylvanian decided to try to avoid the financial burden. Married on August 18, Brittany Lurch, 22, and Arthur Phillips III, 32, stopped off at a Wegman’s after their ceremony to pick up food for a reception to be held two days later. Cops keeping a keen eye on security cameras observed the newlyweds piling over $1,000 of merchandise in their cart and casually walking out of the store. They were soon apprehended by police and sent to Centre County Jail with bail set at $2,500, more than twice what the reception spread would have cost them. Both were charged with retail theft and receiving stolen property and, of course, they missed their own party.
St. Louis, Missouri. August, 2011. She came in through the drive-through window.
At 2:50 in the morning, a car pulled up to the drive-through at the White Castle on Herbert Street and North Florissant. But instead of cash, the two attending White Castle employees were handed a note demanding all the money in the cash register from a woman who seemed to be packing heat. The two employees ran and locked themselves inside a nearby office and called police. Meanwhile the woman climbed halfway through the drive-through window to grab the cashbox before speeding away, dropping her weapon—a toy gun—in the process. Police were able to track the still-unnamed 33-year-old suspect to her home where, in a last-ditch effort to elude capture, she climbed to the roof and took a three-story leap to the ground. She was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries and now faces robbery charges.
Taichung, Taiwan. July, 2008. Watch what you write.
A blogger, identified only by the surname Liu, went to a beef noodle restaurant and wrote about her dining experience on her blog. Her words were far from glowing, describing the food as salty and the dining conditions unsanitary. When the restaurant owner learned about the review, he filed defamation charges against her. The court found that the salty food remarks were out of line as she had only one main dish and two sides at the establishment. Her cockroach criticisms, however, could not be classified as slander. Liu was sentenced to 30 days in detention, suspended for two years, and fined NT$200,000 (approximately $6,900 in American dollars.)
August 23, 2011
In the criminal justice system, those who live outside the law sometimes meet their downfall through their relationship with food. These special cases keep cropping up, and some themes even begin to emerge, be it Jell-O-centric criminal behavior or the nefarious activities of ice cream peddlers. Take your fill of a few more stories from the underbelly. (Here is the apropos sound effect if you’d like to play it as you read each entry.)
Port St. Lucie, Florida. July, 2011. A minor beef.
It was a drug deal that spun out of control. Timethy Morrison shelled out $100 for marijuana, and the dealer drove up and handed Morrison a white bag through his car window and began to drive off. Inspection of the bag’s contents, however, revealed nothing but ground beef, and Morrison promptly turned around and fired several shots at the dealer’s Volvo and fled the scene. He was later apprehended and charged with attempted murder, burglary, escape, possession of marijuana and providing a false name to a law enforcement officer.
Kittery, Maine. March 2010. “Redemption is a dirty business.”
Many states add a 5-cent deposit to the price of bottled and canned drinks—and you can get that deposit back if you return your empties a redemption facility. But in addition to the consumer getting back a bit of change, the facility is paid a handling fee on the order of a few cents for every can processed. It is illegal for facilities to process out-of-state containers, since a state’s beverage industry is paying back those deposits. But a at a few cents a pop, who would put the effort into working the system? Attention turned to Green Bee Redemption in Kittery Maine, when Dennis Reed of New Hampshire rolled up with some 11,000 empty bottles and cans. Reed, along with the facility’s owners, Thomas and Megan Woodard, were all charged with fraud. During the Woodards’ trial, it was revealed that they arranged for Reed, along with Green Bee employee Thomas Prybot of Massachusetts, to collect large quantities of cans which would then be dropped off at the Maine facility after hours. Thomas was found guilty of stealing more than $10,000 by way of processing the illegal empties while his wife was acquitted. Reed is slated to stand trial in October while Prybot was not prosecuted for his role in the crime in exchange for his testimony. It is estimated that some $8 million worth of bottle fraud takes place in Maine every year.
Holyoke, Massachusetts. August, 2010. A load of baloney.
Postal inspectors in Puerto Rico had been working with authorities to try to crack down on illegal drugs being sent via mail to the United States—and their attentions turned to Juan Rodriguez of Holyoke, Massachusetts, after several parcels were sent to his home in May and June of 2010. When the post office alerted Holyoke police about another shipment being sent to Rodriguez, narcotics dogs detected the presence of drugs and an undercover agent delivered the package. After the package was signed for, police raided the residence—and it turned out that Rodriguez had a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a. About 2.2 pounds of cocaine, worth about $100,000 on the street, had been hidden inside a hollowed-out loaf of luncheon meat. Rodriguez was arrested and charged with cocaine trafficking.
Webster, Massachusetts. July, 2008. Get ‘em while they’re hot.
On July 27, 2008, a tractor trailer traveling on Interstate 395 was involved in an accident and overturned, spilling its contents—a shipment of live lobster—and tow-truck operator Robert Moscoffian was called to the scene. Prosecutors allege that Moscoffian also called Arnold A. Villatico, owner of Periwinkles & Giorgio’s restaurant to the scene, who drove to the site with his refrigerated truck, and the pair took crates of lobster from the scene, with an estimated value of some $200,000, and sold them to local restaurants. Some of the upscale crustaceans were returned to the authorities, and the contraband lobsters discovered at Periwinkles & Giorgio’s were released into Boston Harbor. Indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit larceny, larceny over $250 and selling raw fish without a license, Moscoffian and Villatico are currently slated to stand trial in 2012.
June 23, 2011
Our concept of Jell-O-centric criminality typically doesn’t go beyond the idea of ill-conceived potluck salads with fruits or vegetables suspended in the death grip of technicolor molded gelatin. (We all smile and politely eat them anyway.) But while researching a recent post on Jell-O, I came across several instances of the jiggly dessert being at the root of some nefarious activity. I’ve enjoyed food and true crime stories—involving files baked into cakes and ice cream men—so much that the following stories were impossible to pass up. Although this is hardly how Jell-O manufacturers want their product to be remembered. “It is not a usage that we promote for Jell-O,” a General Foods spokeswoman said about Jell-O during the Martin Eisen trial (detailed below), “and, as with any product, it has to be used responsibly, and that is the responsibility of the consumer.” From drunk driving to acts of Cold War espionage, here’s a look at how Jell-O has sprung up in our criminal justice system.
New York City, New York. July, 1950. Jell-O and spy rings.
Husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought to trial in one of the most famous and controversial Cold War-era court cases. They were accused of securing top-secret information about the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union—and a Jell-O box played a role in their conviction. The Rosenbergs orchestrated a meeting between Harry Gold, a New York chemist who was also part of the Rosenbergs’ spy network, and David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother who had worked on the Manhattan Project and had top-secret information on the atom bomb. So that the pair could covertly signal to each other that they were a part of the same spy ring, a Jell-O box was cut up, half of it given to Gold, the other half given to Greenglass. When the two met up, the matching box piece was an “all clear” sign for Greenberg to pass on his bomb information, which eventually made its way back to the Soviet Union. Although the original Jell-O box was never found, a facsimile (a box of raspberry-flavored gelatin, now in the National Archives) was used in the trial to link the Rosenbergs to the atomic information leak. Greenglass got 15 years in prison in exchange for his testimony against the Rosenbergs while Harry Gold was sentenced to 30 years. Julius and Ethel were convicted on espionage charges and sentenced to death, and both went to the electric chair on June 19, 1953. Whether the punishment suited the couple’s activities later became a hot debate topic. In 2008, Morton Sobell, who was charged with espionage along with the Rosenbergs but had always maintained his innocence, confirmed that he and Julius were indeed active Soviet agents.
Westport, Massachusetts. January, 1990. Death by Jell-O
Richard Alfredo died at age 61 from a massive heart attack, and because he suffered from chronic heart ailments, his mortal end did not come as a surprise. However, police suspected that he did not die from natural causes and an autopsy revealed that he had massive amounts of the hallucinogenic drug LSD in his system. Attention turned to his 39-year-old live-in girlfriend Christina Martin, who moved to Montreal a month after her boyfriend’s passing, and she was put on trial for murder. Witness testimony revealed that Alfredo suffered the heart attack after Martin, thinking she could inherit her boyfriend’s money and property, served him a lime Jell-O dessert that was laced with a lethal dose of LSD. Martin was convicted of the crime in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison.
Los Angeles, California. November, 1992. The Jell-O Defense.
On the evening of November 11, 1992, Martin Barry Eisen was pulled over by police for driving 55 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone, and at the time of his arrest, he had a blood alcohol content of .10. At trial, Eisen testified that some 25 minutes before getting behind the wheel, he enjoyed several bowls of cherry Jell-O that, unbeknownst to him, his friend had spiked with vodka. The court failed to sympathize with that line of defense. Eisen was fined $1,053 and ordered to attend 3 months of alcohol education classes.
Durham, New Hampshire. February, 1992. There’s always room for free speech.
University of New Hampshire English professor J. Donald Silva was giving a lecture to his technical writing class and his description of belly dancer Little Egypt’s skills landed the 59-year-old tenured teacher in hot water. “Belly dancing,” he said, “is like Jell-O on a plate, with a vibrator under the plate.” Nine students complained and the university suspended Silva on sexual harassment grounds. Silva later filed suit and in 1994, Federal District Courts ruled that the university violated his first amendment rights and that there were legitimate, pedagogical reasons for his language choices. Silva was reinstated, but the court decision did not address the $42,000 in damages or back pay he had sought.
East Northport, New York. March, 2010. The proof is in the pudding. (Or lack thereof.)
Something was definitely amiss when a Long Island supermarket customer bought a box of Jell-O pudding only to find that it was filled with sand and salt. Police were able to trace the suspicious box back to a Long Island couple, 68-year-old Alexander Clements and his wife of 40 years, Christine, age 64. The couple had a penchant for pistachio and butterscotch pudding and, hitting up four area stores, would buy up to 10 boxes of pudding, take them home to empty their contents and replace the powdered pudding mix with plastic bags full of salt and sand and return the resealed boxes to the store to get a refund. Per the authorities, Christine was suffering from age-related mental issues and the couple did not intend to harm other people—but rather just wanted pudding without paying for it in spite of being financially stable. The couple was arrested and charged with petit larceny and tampering with a consumer product.