A man who put shards of metal in baby food jars in the United Kingdom has been found guilty of blackmail and contaminating goods.
Nigel Wright began threatening supermarket chain Tesco in spring 2018, writing to his local store in Lincolnshire and warning unless they paid him £750,000 ($982,000) worth of bitcoin – an online currency that would allow the 45-year-old to remain anonymous – he would spike food on their shelves.
Under the pseudonym ‘Guy Brush’, Wright, a farmer, demanded larger sums of money up to £1.5 million ($1.96 million) in bitcoin, telling Tesco he would also contaminate jars with Salmonella, white powder and knives.
He is scheduled to be sentenced in late September.
Heinz and Cow & Gate baby food recalled
In mid-December 2019, a mother in Lockerbie found small knife fragments in the baby food she was about to give her child. When a nationwide recall was issued in that month, a family in Rochdale also contacted the company saying they had thrown out two tins of baby food containing metal.
This recall involved Heinz and Tesco removing from sale all of the 7+ months Heinz By Nature baby food range after the discovery that a jar had been tampered with as two sharp metal fragments were found in the pot. One month later, Cow & Gate and Tesco recalled 15 varieties of 7+ month Cow & Gate baby food jars sold in the UK following concerns some may have been tampered with.
Wright is believed to have placed three jars of baby food with shards of metal in two Tesco stores between May 2018 and February 2020.
Charles White, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “Wright demanded an extraordinary amount of money, and was so determined to secure it that he was prepared to contaminate children’s food on supermarket shelves. It is a testament to the vigilance of parents and the swift action taken by the supermarket, police and other agencies that the public were kept safe.”
Investigation and arrest
When arrested in February 2020, Wright told police he had been threatened to do the extortion by people who said they would harm his family if he did not.
The investigation was run by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit assisted by partners including the National Crime Agency as well as Tesco, Heinz and Cow & Gate. It was supported by the Food Standards Agency, Food Standards Scotland, Public Health England, Public Health Scotland and Police Scotland.
Operation Hancock, which was the largest blackmail inquiry ever in the UK was led by Hertfordshire Assistant Chief Constable Bill Jephson.
“Throughout this investigation, our key focus was to safeguard the public and identify the individual or group involved as they clearly had no concern for the impact of their actions. I hope the conviction of Nigel Wright will serve as a deterrent to anyone who thinks blackmail is a viable criminal option. The resources available to law enforcement to respond to threats of this nature are significant as crimes like this will simply not be tolerated,” he said.
The prosecution was able to prove there was no evidence to support Wright’s claims. Instead, Hertfordshire police found material which pointed to the fact he had acted alone.
Evidence against Wright
A laptop was discovered in his Toyota with draft copies of the extortion letters and access to the email account that “Guy Brush” had used to communicate with Tesco.
Wright searched online for “tesco tampered” and “boy autopsy” and had read an article about the recall of baby food.
The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, also known as the Old Bailey, was shown photos Wright had taken of contaminated jars, positioned next to small knives and with small, green markings on the base of the jar.
As the blackmail continued, an officer posed as a Tesco employee and gave Wright an access code for the £100,000 ($131,000) worth of bitcoin. When Wright was arrested, he had a copy of this access code written on a piece of paper.
White said evidence included the laptop, images Wright had taken of contaminated food and the bitcoin access code.
“He created an elaborate lie saying that he himself was blackmailed, but it is clear Wright was the only person responsible for potentially putting the public’s safety at risk.”
Wright was found guilty of three counts of blackmail and two counts of contaminating goods after a nine day trial. He was remanded in custody and will be sentenced in late September.
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