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Salsa Poisoning Part of Revenge Plot

A plea deal in the federal criminal case over last year’s use of a dangerous pesticide to poison the patrons of a Mexican restaurant in Lenexa, KS means the wife involved will be testifying against her husband.

Yini De La Torre, 19, of Shawnee, KS plead guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiracy to tamper with a consumer product.  She will be sentenced on May 18.

chips-salsa2-featured.jpgIn her plea deal, De La Torre admitted that while working as a waitress at the Mi Ranchito restaurant in Lenexa she twice added a Methomyl-based pesticide to salsa she prepared.

U.S. District Attorney Lanny Welch offered this synopsis of the case:

On Aug. 11, 2009, during the lunch rush, 12 diners at Mi Ranchito suffered nausea, abdominal cramps, weakness, and sweating and chest discomfort after eating salsa.

On Aug. 30, 2009, during dinner, approximately 36 patrons of Mi Ranchito suffered similar symptoms after eating salsa. Some of the customers were transported to the hospital. The poisoned patrons ranged from young children to senior citizens, some of whom suffered from medical conditions that were aggravated by the poison.

In her plea, De La Torre said her husband and co-defendant Arnoldo Bazan worked for a Mi Ranchito restaurant in Olathe until June 27, 2009.

Bazan believed the owner of the Mi Ranchito chain was responsible for Bazan being suspended from employment and the theft of Bazan’s vehicle.

Bazan hatched a plot with De La Torre to get even with the owner of the restaurant by poisoning the patrons of Mi Ranchito.

During July 2009, the owner of the Mi Ranchito restaurant reported to the Overland Park Police Department that Bazan was stalking him.

On Aug. 7, 2009, a message was sent to the restaurant’s Web site threatening harm if Bazan’s vehicle was not returned.

On Aug. 28, 2009, before the second poisoning incident, Bazan sent word to the owner of the restaurant through a family member that “the worst is yet to come.”

While Lenexa police were investigating the poisoning, Bazan told Da La Torre not to speak with investigators or she would suffer physical harm.

The Johnson County Health Department collected samples of food from the restaurant as well as blood and urine samples from the patrons who became ill.

A Food and Drug Administration lab found Methomyl in the salsa. A laboratory at the University of California at Davis found Methomyl in the samples from the patrons.

Methomyl is a highly toxic compound introduced in 1966 as an insecticide for treatment of vegetable, fruit, and field crops.

As a result of the poisoning incidents, all six Mi Ranchito restaurants suffered reduced income. The Mi Ranchito in Lenexa saw sales for September and October 2009 decline by approximately $250,000.

Bazan is awaiting trial. Conspiracy to tamper with a consumer product carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000.

Welch commended the following agencies and individuals for their work on the case: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration – Office of Criminal Investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency – Criminal Investigation Division, the Lenexa Police Department, the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Johnson County Health Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Rask.

In all cases, Welch said defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty. The indictments filed merely contain allegations of criminal conduct.

© Food Safety News