BELLEVILLE, IL (KTVI) – A Belleville man, who told authorities he stuck needles in fresh packages of meat “just for the hell of it” at a Belleville Shop ‘n Save, is now charged with seven federal crimes.
68-year old Ronald G. Avers of Belleville was arraigned Thursday on seven counts of food tampering. The crimes are alleged to have occurred over the past 15 months at one store, Shop ‘n Save at 4201 North Belt West Rd. in Belleville, IL.
Customers and a grocery store employee found the needles in packages of ground beef, steak and beef roasts, pork steaks and pork chops. In one case cited in the criminal complaint filed in the U.S. Federal District Court in East St. Louis, a woman reported she was eating a piece of cooked chuck roast when she was stuck in her mouth by a sewing needle.
Another person reported getting stuck on a hand by a needle in a piece of steak purchased from the store’s meat department.
Shop ‘n Save began its own internal investigations on each complaint filed with the store. The first one occurred in May of 2013.
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, Stephen Wigginton said the crime weas “almost a form of terror.” He praised Shop ‘n Save for its work and willingness to bring the case to his office.
“There wasn’t a clear pattern in this particular case until they ( Shop ‘n Save)
spent more time and money upgrading their security, upgrading their camera systems and identifying who they thought was the culprit,” he said. The firm contacted the U.S. Attorney in mid-July after the seventh time a needle was found in a package of fresh meat.
At that time federal agents and Belleville police conducted more comprehensive surveillance. The suspect was spotted in the store on July 29. Investigators confronted him on the parking lot and took him into custody after finding an open package of sewing needles in his vehicle.
Wigginton also called the company a “good corporate citizen” for coming forward when such incidents “may not be good publicity.”
Shop ‘n Save spokesperson Jeff Swanson said company security staff watched “probably hundreds of hours of surveillance video” looking for a suspect.
Court documents describe the suspect as “an adult white male approximately 70 years old who carries a portable oxygen tank and rides a motorized scooter.” In the video he was seen frequently handling packaged meat products but he never purchased any.
The criminal complaint document shows Avers confessed to the crimes saying at one point he did not know why he did it and he “didn’t mean to hurt nobody.”
If convicted, Avers faces a maximum penalty of ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.
Both federal investigators and the grocery chain believe the crimes were limited to the one store in West Belleville. But they are urging anyone with information to contact the FBI at 618-397-4401 or the U.S. Attorney in Fairview Heights at 618-628-3700.
The investigation is still ongoing.
Swanson praised the Shop ‘n Save customers who brought the food tampering instances to the store’s attention. “The safety of our customers and employees is a top priority,” he said adding anyone who is concerned about an item they purchased at the Belleville store should return it for a full refund or an exchange.
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