Mary Wilkerson, quality control officer for the defunct Peanut Corporation of America, is free after serving a 5-year federal prison sentence for obstruction of justice.
Wilkerson, 46 of Edison, GA., was released from a re-entry center, or half-way house, in Atlanta earlier this week. Her full release date was moved up by one month to Feb 2 by the U.S. Probation Office in Albany, GA. The mother of two has been separated from her husband and family for the past five years.
She was found guilty in 2014 by an Albany, GA, jury of one count of obstruction of justice while being acquitted on another. The trial judge imposed the 5-year sentence in 2015.
Wilkerson was indicted and tried with the company CEO and his brother, Stewart and Michael Parnell. Stewart Parnell was the chief executive of PCA, while Michael Parnell was its peanut broker. In 2008-09, PCA’s Albany plant was linked to peanut butter and peanut paste that federal prosecutors charged was sold knowingly contaminated with Salmonella because the Parnells ignored testing results.
A four-year federal investigation led to February 2013 indictments of Wilkerson, the Parnell brothers, and two other former PCA managers.
Wilkerson’s offense was a “process crime” over misleading federal agents during the investigation. The government acknowledged she was not part of the conspiracy that led to the Salmonella poisonings that sickened thousands and killed nine. She was not responsible for making restitution to any of the victims.
And the victims were numerous, from the Salmonella outbreak illnesses and deaths to an estimated $1 billion in property damages suffered by other companies that were unwittingly being supplied with PCA contaminated products. Almost 4,000 companies recalled more than 3,900 products. It was the most massive food ingredient recall in U.S. history.
Wilkerson is the first PCA defendant who went to trial to finish with federal prison. She served most of her time at the federal lock-up in Tallahassee, FL. During her last few months in federal custody, she transferred to Residential Re-entry Management (RRM), which manages half-way houses for about 8,000 inmates as they near their release dates.
Her supervised federal probation will continue for two years.
Samuel Lightsey, who managed the PCA plant in Blakely, GA, at the time of the deadly outbreak, was the government’s star witness at trial and served less than three years.
Another former PCA plant manager, Daniel Kilgore, also made a deal with the government for his testimony for a six-year sentence. He’s next up for release, now set for Jan 30, 2021. He is at a minimum-security federal prison in Oakdale, LA.
Doing the most time for the PCA-related convictions, however, are the Parnell brothers. The Albany, GA, federal jury found Stewart guilty on 67 federal felony counts and Michael guilty on 30. The second generation of his family to run PCA, which spanned three southern states, Stewart was sentenced to 28 years in prison, and his brother to 20.
Felony charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce “with the intent to defraud or mislead” were among the most serious of the convictions.
Federal minimum security prisons hold the Parnell brothers. Stewart, 65, is at the Hazelton Federal Correctional Institute in West Virginia and Michael 61, is at Fort Dix, NJ.
Wilkerson began serving her sentence about one year after being found guilty of one count of obstruction of justice while being acquitted on another in the same jury trial that brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell were found guilty on multiple federal felony counts.
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