Salmonella outbreak trial coverage from Albany, GA - Week 1

Published: Jul. 31, 2014 at 3:35 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 11, 2014 at 4:57 PM EDT
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Defendant Mary Wilkerson leaves court in this 2013 photo.
Defendant Mary Wilkerson leaves court in this 2013 photo.
Defendant Stewart Parnell (in pink shirt)
Defendant Stewart Parnell (in pink shirt)
Defendant Michael Parnell (in white shirt)
Defendant Michael Parnell (in white shirt)

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - This is the first week of coverage from the trial of three people charged in a deadly salmonella outbreak linked to a peanut plant in Georgia.

Former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) owner Stewart Parnell, his food broker brother Michael Parnell, and Georgia plant quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson were indicted in February 2013, charged with shipping salmonella tainted peanuts and covering up lab results showing the nuts tested positive for the bacteria.

Nine people died and more than 700 were sickened in the outbreak that happened between 2008 and 2009.

  • Friday August 8:

2:00 p.m. Court adjourns for the day.

12:00 p.m. Second break. Lightsey went through PCA brochure and admitted that all the comments about quality products were a lie. He said if they were committed to high quality then they wouldn't falsify COAs. He says the comments about false COAs were made with Mike Parnell and not Stewart Parnell.

He said it deceives customers to retest a product with a positive test and then send it. He also said Parnell came down at least once a month.

Lightsey testified about the first positive test PCA received while he was working. He said it was the first positive test he received in 20 years of working in the industry. Says Stewart Parnell made the executive decision to send the product. Lightsey says he didn't feel comfortable sending it himself and that was up to Parnell.

11:30 a.m. Lightsey just testified that he found out mike Parnell and PCA were shipping products to Kellogg's with false certificate of analysis (COA) in early September. He attempted to stop the false COA's but Mike Parnell told him "I can handle Kellogg's. We've been shipping to them with false COAs since before you got here. I'll handle Kellogg's. Don't worry about it."

Lightsey said he didn't know what to do and told them to keep shipping in that manner and that's when he made his mistake. He regrets making that choice and wishes he had stopped the process. He says he didn't quit his job because he wanted to fix things and needed to make a living. He says he would never have shipped out the product if he knew it would hurt someone. He says he knows he did now and pleaded guilty.

PCA didn't have the storage capacity to make peanut paste and produced the product straight into tankers that went to Kelloggs on same day.

9:40 a.m. Lightsey is going through the list of supervisors at his plant. He says Mary Wilkerson was in charge of COAs and would have seen all of the ones that came through the plant. She was responsible for pulling samples.

He also says he doesn't think Wilkerson was qualified for the position of quality assurance manager and didn't have the proper training.

Lightsey testifies that his direct boss was Stewart Parnell and Parnell was actively involved on a day to day basis.

9:15 a.m. Sammy Lightsey is walking through his work experience. Explains how he got the job at PCA and what he thought the job would entail as plant manager.

Judge warns the jury that Lightsey has pleaded guilty and may have an inclination to make untruthful statements in the government's favor.

Prosecutor asks Lightsey about the counts he plead guilty too. Lightsey says he faces a maximum of 76 years in jail and $1.75 million fine. Government is suggesting a six year maximum though with his cooperation.

Lightsey says he is here to "do what is right and take responsibility for what he did."

8:30 a.m. Sammy Lightsey called to the stand. He's the former plant manager who has pleaded guilty and is testifying as part of his plea deal. He is the first former PCA employee the jury has heard from.

  • Thursday August 7:

2:09 p.m.

Court adjourned.

12:43 p.m.

FDA investigator Bob Nelligan is on the stand. He assisted Janet Gray. He will continue in the morning for a short time as they are on re-cross.  Mary Wilkerson's lawyer had several questions as the FDA investigators are a big reason why Mary Wilkerson is charged with obstruction.

12:05 p.m.

Finally, after 13 hours on the stand, Janet Gray is leaving.

Redirect and re-cross focused on whether or not Mary Wilkerson hindered Gray in finding out about positive tests. The prosecution says she knowingly hid information. Her attorney said she didn't hinder.

Sammy Lightsey's family is still in the courtroom. Doing second recess now.

11:40 a.m.

Michael Parnell's lawyer questioned Gray about whether or not she knew his client. He was showing that Michael Parnell had no knowledge of the products that were loaded and sent to Kellogg's and he wasn't there for the inspection.

Mary Wilkerson's lawyer questioned Gray about the two counts she is charged with. Gray testifies that Wilkerson was helpful and provided her with documents willingly when she was asked. Her attorney asks her about a chain of emails sent to FDA in Washington about the inspection right before the congressional hearing. He questions her about why the reports weren't thorough when she knew they were going to Capitol Hill.

Gray testifies that she doesn't know the position of the woman she sent the confidential email to at the FDA.

Mary Wilkerson was visibly emotional as her attorney cross examined Janet Gray.

Prosecution is now re-directing before the next witness is called.

10:35 a.m.

Michael Parnell's attorney is up. Stewart Parnell's attorney made solid points. He showed emails that proved Gray added information, had interference from the office of criminal investigation, and initially said Sammy Lightsey was responsible for the shipments.

Other emails showed her saying that it "stinks" when the lab results came back negative for salmonella because she thought they would be positive. Bondurant says this is proof that it wasn't an unbiased inspection.

Her bosses made her add Stewart Parnell as a responsible party. Bondurant showed emails that Gray confirmed. His last question regarded her adding information to her inspection for FDA and other departments "as long as they backed her up when bullets start flying."

Bondurant then said no further questions.

9:35 a.m.

First recess of the day. Prosecutors finished pretty quickly this morning. Stewart Parnell's defense is cross-examining now. He is focusing on previous inspections that found no serious violations shortly before the FDA inspection.

Bondurant (Stewart's attorney) implies Gray had a lot of pressure from congress and other investigative bodies during this inspection.

  • Wednesday, August 6:

2:00 p.m.

Court adjourns for the day. Will resume with prosecutors questions again Thursday.

1:45 p.m.

Prosecutors still questioning gray. It's been almost 9 hours in court.

She is confirming documents that prove PCA sent bad products at least 7 times. She says they retested products and then sent the products out before they came back.

She is going over the results of their investigation and what violations they accused them of when the investigation was over.

1:20 p.m.

Court is back in session. Prosecutors still questioning gray. Seven occasions have been recorded that she's confirmed that PCA sent products before tests came back. In those cases, the results were positive.

Gray says her investigation showed PCA then sent another sample from the same product for retesting to a different lab. She says PCA did not provide any documents that showed any effort for a recall or any contact with customers about the bad product.

The examples continue as the prosecution questions her.

She says Mary Wilkerson is the contact for the lab results, meaning she would know what tests came back positive and which products were bad.

Gray is confirming that PCA shipped products before tests came back, and in some cases they were shipped on the same day as production. These are two points that the prosecution brought up in opening statements when telling the jury what they hoped evidence would show.

12:30 p.m.

The trial went into a 20 minute recess

12:00 p.m.

Gray is saying that PCA ships products without waiting on results.

11:00 a.m

. Gray is still being questioned by the prosecutors. She is basically confirming the prosecutor's claims that PCA shipped products before test results came back, and in some cases, the tests came back positive.

10:10 a.m.

Jury just heard for the first time that PCA shipped a product one day after production that later received a confirmed positive on salmonella. A retest came back negative for that product.

9:40 a.m.

Prosecution finished going through pictures. First recess being taken now. Prosecution is asking a few follow up questions on the pictures.

9:15 a.m.

Janet Gray still on the stand. Prosecution is still questioning her too. She is explaining a bunch of different pictures she took during their investigation. It's pictures of mold, leaks in the roof, and poor cleaning practices that she noted while looking at the plant.

The jury is getting a better opportunity to see inside the Blakely plant.

8:15 a.m.

Court is back in session.

  • Tuesday, August 5:

2:25 p.m.

Court is out for the day. Prosecution was still questioning FDA investigator Janet Gray  after about three hours. She was going into detail about the FDA investigation. She will continue in the morning. Sammy Lightsey's family was in court all day. They declined comment. Lightsey was the plant manager in 2008. He pleaded guilty in a deal to testify against Parnell.

1:00 p.m.

Gray is giving the jury their first look behind the doors at Peanut Corporation of America. She is walking them through a diagram of the plant.

Lawyers for Michael Parnell and Mary Wilkerson are refuting the accuracy of the diagram.

She said if PCA had been more honest about failed salmonella tests, then the FDA investigation could have been broader and more products would be recalled as a result.

The biggest issue inside the facility was a sink in the peanut butter room.

12:07 p.m.

Court is in a 20 minute recess.

12:05 p.m.

FDA investigator Janet Gray says PCA wasn't forthright with now many salmonella tests they had failed. They admitted to more and more tests as the FDA investigation continued. She is implying Mary Wilkerson a lot in her testimony so this could be the first real questioning we hear from her lawyer. Gray says that Mary Wilkerson was her contact at PCA to find out about the number of failed salmonella tests.

11:35 a.m.

Janet Gray is still being questioned by prosecution. She conducted an investigation at the PCA plant after the CDC had identified King Nut, one of their customers, as a possible source of salmonella. The investigation focused on the peanut butter process.

They did a walkthrough. Sammy Lightsey told her that they had received one presumptive positive, but when they sent it to Deibel, it came back as negative.

She says Lightsey and Parnell were helpful through process.

10:50 a.m.

FDA investigator Janet Gray has been called to the stand.

Dr. Deibel's cross examination focused on a pharmaceutical testing facility that he owned. It was shut down after the FDA investigated his company for failing to follow testing protocol. Although it was a different facility, and it tested a different product, the defense was questioning his ability to testify against someone accused of precisely the same thing.

10:00 a.m.

Dr. Deibel is now being questioned by the defense. Government finished up getting him to confirm the documents that proved positive tests.

  • Monday, August 4:

2:00 p.m.

Deibel said during questioning that a "good, clean facility" may fail a test around every five years.

Court was adjourned for the day at 2 p.m. and will resume Tuesday morning.

1:00 p.m.

Charles Deibel is now on the stand from Deibel Laboratories. He is the president of the other company that did testing for PCA. He just started and is the government's second witness.

Michael Parnell's lawyer asked questions about the knowledge of PP sales with regards to failed tests and whether or not they would know of this. Cowart said that she was unsure.

Wilkerson's lawyer asked about the qualifications if a quality assurance manager.

Most of the questions were from Stewart Parnell's team. They re-crossed with questions regarding the issue of possible cross-contamination at JLA.

12:30 p.m.

PCA spent $160,000 in testing at JLA. One employee at JLA who did lab tests has since been fired for falsifying records.

Stewart Parnell's attorneys point out that shipping products before test results came back that would take 2-3 days to get to a customer is not unusual. Defense says PCA would then call if tests came back positive.

Scott Austin is doing the questioning for Stewart Parnell. He asked Cowart about cross-contamination issue at JLA and she admits it has happened before.

Austin attacked about 5 points from the prosecution's opening statement. His questions were all about JLA's tests on PCA's products. She is the government's expert witness.

Cowart confirms that PCA wrapped up final products in cardboard boxes and cellophane wrapping and place it on pallets with a barrier in between the raw products. The government made a big issue about PCA cross contaminating by leaving finished products near raw products in the facility.

11:00 a.m.

Cowart was the president of JLA. Defense is still questioning her. Defense is suggesting that out of 3,537 salmonella tests from 2007-2008, PCA only tested positive 12 times.

They are also paying a lot of attention to the "retesting" issue that the prosecution said was misleading by PCA. Defense said there is nothing illegal about it, and they were being up front with JLA about the retests.

Defense (attorney for Stewart Parnell) asserts that according to a food safety journal, salmonella tests are wrong 9% of the time. According to their stats, PCA tested positive only .338% of the time in the two years.

Stewart Parnell's attorneys also point out that the contact for a "positive" test was someone in the Blakely plant, NOT Stewart Parnell.

10:00 a.m.

Prosecution just finished questioning Dr. Darlene Cowart. She was the JLA associate who tested samples from Peanut Corp. She confirmed that test results were actual documents. A break has been issued, then the defense will question her.

  • Friday, August 1:

2:00 p.m.

Court adjourns for the day.

1:20 p.m.

Cowart confirms what the prosecution said in the opening statements that salmonella is not evenly distributed throughout a product. Prosecution is asking her about testing a sample.

Sample would come in with a request for analysis. Once it's in the lab would look at the request and enter it into the system. As soon as the results came in, they sent those back to the customer. If it was a presumptive positive, then they notify the customer. When official reports come in and if it was positive, then they gave the customer a phone call as well as a COA. The lab only had to notify the customer, not anyone else.

1:00 p.m.

Questioning has now moved to a background on salmonella and different places that the bacteria is found. She briefly discusses how they test for it and how large the samples should be. Prosecution is showing how careful and tedious the testing must be.

12:50 p.m.

Cowart is giving a background on testing. Each side is questioning her about her qualifications. She still has not made any comments directly about PCA. The manufacturer must receive a toxin certificate to accept the peanuts. This differs from finished-product-testing because manufacturer determines how big the lots will be and how often it will be tested.

12:30 p.m.

Court is back in session. Darlene Cowart is called to the stand for the prosecution. She has been a corporate food safety director for five years. She was quality assurance operator before that. She worked at JLA, one of the labs responsible for testing PCA's samples.

12:00 p.m.

A 10 minute recess has been issued.

11:50 a.m.

Attorneys are having a discussion about the problem of the prosecution's first expert witness. Defense is claiming they don't have sufficient information about her testimony. Jury is on another break. Judge is currently listening to both sides before making a decision on the prosecution's first witness, Darlene Cowart.

11:30 a.m.

All opening statements have concluded.

11:20 a.m.

Mike Parnell and Mary Wilkerson's attorneys decline to make opening statement.

11:10 a.m.

Stewart Parnell defense says that PP sales was on contract with Kellogg's and that they are responsible for the falsified COAs. He says the timeline is inaccurate and misleading. He references the two people who plead guilty already, and says that Stewart Parnell relied on them and is sitting here because of that. Defense believes that Sammy Lightsey will say he didn't ever have a conversation with Stewart Parnell about the COA. He says Kilgore made a deal with the Feds to get out of his 327 years in jail. He says it took 6 interviews for Kilgore to testify against Parnell and throw him under the bus.

He requests that the jury keeps an open mind through the case for Stewart Parnell. He says the government should answer what they can't prove and they should look at the emails in context and as a whole. He says Parnell may have skipped emails and didn't have perfect knowledge of the situation.

He is now showing the emails that lead up to emails showed in the prosecutions opening argument. Parnell responded to the white out email asking for the plant manager to print up a report of the COAs. He tells the jury that no one should be convicted of any crime in this country without proving beyond reasonable doubt that he is guilty, and says that the jury's sworn duty is to uphold that responsibility. Ends by asking them to find him not guilty.

11:00 a.m.

Stewart Parnell's attorney, Tom Bonderat, begins by introducing Parnell. Gives the background on PCA and so far is trying to blame people below Parnell that "didn't know what they were doing." His attorney says he received hundreds if not thousands of emails and texts and he just skimmed them because he didn't have the time to go through them. He says "Mr. Parnell is sitting here because the people he hired cut corners, didn't know what they were doing, and left him out to dry." He tells jury that the government must prove criminal intent to convict Parnell of the federal crimes.

He says he believes the case will boil down to two points. The first is retesting. He says there is no legal requirement for retesting for salmonella, and there is no law against retesting a positive salmonella test. He says PCA demanded retesting. He says the government knew they were retesting and didn't do anything about it until the FDA and Congress got involved with the salmonella outbreak happened.He says the contract isn't between PCA and Kellogg's. The contract was between PP Sales (Mike Parnell's company) and Kellogg's. He says Kellogg's would then combine that product with other companies' peanut paste and then add their own stuff to make the peanut butter. He says Kellogg's never tested for salmonella.

He says it's easier for the government to come after a small family business like PCA, than it is to come after a big company like Kellogg's.He says the retest negates criminal intent. He says "the people the Stewart hired to do their jobs failed to do their jobs."

10:50 a.m.

Prosecutor continues showing many different emails of the Parnell brothers and shows that they talked about ways to skirt the testing.

Closing remarks begin and prosecutor is going back over charges. he says CDC concluded that salmonella outbreak in 2008 was traced back to a PCA plant in Blakely. Federal investigators came in January 2013 to go through the plant. They talked to Mary Wilkerson, Sammy Lightsey, and Joe Sams. The investigators found two samples at the plant tested positive for salmonella as well as two finished products. Overall, Parnell brothers and Mary Wilkerson is 76 counts.

Prosecutor closes by showing several emails where Stewart Parnell says just "SHIP" to show the jury that he would ship at any cost.

10:40 a.m.

Another email is brought up. The email is from 2003 from Jeff McFay to Stewart Parnell. Kilgore says a retest came back negative. The email says, "when we have rush orders as we normally do, cleaning takes a back seat... but it took me a few trial and errors to figure it out... we have a cross-contamination issue."

Another email in 2008 from Lightsey to Stew Parnell says that a final test result came back positive for salmonella. The company had already shipped 280 cases of peanuts to Fieldbrook and 40 cases of Meal to Kerry Ingredients. David Voth told those customers that the test was inconclusive though and told them that that a retest would be done.

Wilkerson sends an email that says they have a problem for salmonella "at least every other week if not every week, but when retested by a different lab it comes back ok." Prosecutor says key point of the emails are that Parnell and his partners shared several emails that know they have salmonella issues. Prosecutor shows email from Stewart Parnell to a customer apologizing for peanut issues saying he "has never had any issue with this every before."

Parnell then sent an email to his workers telling them to tell investigators "that we have never seen any traces of salmonella in any other of our products." Parnell brothers are looking straight ahead at their screens as these emails come across for the jury.

10:30 a.m.

Prosecutors show a couple of emails. First one is Stewart Parnell telling his plant manager to clean up the peanuts and ship them even though there was rat feces on their products. The second email came from the time when there was a nationwide search for a salmonella outbreak and Stewart Parnell emails Sammy Lightsey "we need to get the roof fixed at any cost." Prosecutor shows the jury a file that shows a failed test was tracked and it was never shown to the FDA. He says this file is a key piece of evidence against Mary Wilkerson in her two counts of obstruction.

10:20 a.m.

He shows the jury an email from Danny Kilgore to Stewart Parnell that was talking about a way to get around testing. Prosecutor says PCA would test 4 samples from one lot and then share the results with Kellogg's as if they were from different lots. Prosecutor says PCA sent one truckload of paste to Kellogg's even though a sample had tested positive for salmonella. Prosecutor says Stewart Parnell figured out ways to falsify test results and still send them to customers.

10:15 a.m.

Court is back in session. Prosecutor is taking jurors through testing process. PCA would take a sample from a lot and label it "Lot 8028". The first number, "8" stood for the year so 2008. The "028" stood for the day of the year. So in that case, the 28th day of the year. Prosecutor says that 74 of the 118 lots sent to Kellogg's were never even tested. They lied about the fact that they were domestic peanuts; he says almost 70% of those peanuts were from Mexican or Agentine peanuts.

9:45 a.m.

Court breaks in first recess.

9:40 a.m.

The test samples should all be from different products. Prosecutor says PCA would send 4 samples from one finished product and label it as if they were from different products. 3 of the 4 tests from a product produced in 2008 came back negative for salmonella. However, one sample tested positive for salmonella, but PCA had already shipped the product to Kellogg's to put in Austin peanut butter crackers.

9:30 a.m.

Mike Parnell oversaw the contract to Kellogg's that the prosecutor says had a false and misleading Certificate of Analysis (COA) with a majority of the products shipped never being tested at all.

Prosecutor shows an email from Jeff McFay to Mike Parnell that says, "here is the COA that you need to fill out. I won't get the results back in time." Prosecutor says Mike Parnell falsified the COA because Kellogg's wouldn't accept the shipment without the COA. Prosecutor says PCA would produce the product and ship it the same day it was produced even though you should produce it, test it (which takes two days), wait for the results and then ship it with the COA.

9:20 a.m.

Prosecutor puts up timeline showing all the positive tests from 2003-2008. He shows the jury a certificate of analysis from Kellogg's that says they want negative tests for salmonella and has an acceptable level of other bacteria present in the products.

9:10 a.m.

JLA sent back a test that had a confirmed positive test for salmonella and PCA sent it anyways. PCA would put the results on their own form and send it to customers. No one at the companies of their customers got a call that the product had tested positive for salmonella. Prosecutor says the heart of the problem is that PCA had a problem with salmonella in its plant and in its products.

9:00 a.m.

Walking jury through salmonella. Prosecutor describes it as a bacteria that is tough to detect. The two labs identified in the indictment are J. Leek and Associates (one lab in Albany) and Deibel Laboratories. PCA would send a sample of their product to one of these laboratories. The sample could be 1 pound out of a 40,000 pound product. Process of testing took two days. The test will obviously come back positive or negative, and then PCA would relay that test to its customers. Manufacturer should hold the product until the tests come back.

8:50 a.m.

Now moving on to Mary Wilkerson. She worked in various capacities at PCA from about April 2002 to February of 2009. Began as a receptionist before being moved all the way up to Quality Control Manager. Prosecutor is briefing the jury on Daniel Kilgore-the former Plant Manager who pleaded guilty in May 2014. Samuel Lightsey was also plant manager from July 2008 to February 2009. He pleaded guilty to 6 charges in May 2014.

He is telling jurors about the "unindicted co-conspirators" which is everyone else in management at PCA Blakely. Prosecutor seems to be painting the picture that everyone knew what was going on and was doing it on purpose.

He is going through customer's specifications. For example, Kellogg asked for their products to be produced from "quality domestic runner type peanuts." The customers also have tests they want run before the finished product is shipped to them. Prosecutor says Stewart Parnell had no regard for any of that and "just shipped it." Prosecutor is focusing on the requirement for a negative salmonella test. Other specifications had certain levels that would be acceptable. Kellogg's didn't want any product that had tested positive for salmonella.

8:40 a.m.

There are three PCA plants in GA, TX, and Suffolk, VA. Main offices in Lynchburg. Prosecutor says Stewart Parnell flew to each plants often and was intimately involved in the operations of the plants despite being in Virginia. Prosecutor is now moving on to Mike Parnell in the overview. Mike Parnell oversaw and negotiated contracts for PCA through his food brokerage company. Oversaw the largest contract with Kellogg's as well. Prosecutor says Mike Parnell was also at the Blakely plant a lot overseeing production of peanut products.

8:30 a.m.

Prosecutor says that Parnell just shipped products regardless of customers, good practices, or safety. He is walking the jury through the background of PCA. Eleven customers of PCA in the indictment are Kroger, Kellogg's, and 9 other small companies. He is giving jurors examples of the products these companies produce to show the wide range of this case.

8:20 a.m.

Opening statements began with prosecution. Prosecutor says there is a mountain of evidence. Describes the case as a map because the action of the three defendants affected the lives of people all over the United States. He says this case is about the mission statement of Stewart Parnell. Showing jurors emails from Parnell. Saying, "...just ship it. I cannot afford to lose another customer."

8:15 a.m.

Court is in session. Defense wants to bring in two more witnesses because the prosecution has agents from the FBI and FDA. Judge is settling the dispute.

8:00 a.m.

Proceedings have not yet begun. Most everyone is here except for Mary Wilkerson. Jurors still aren't in the room.

  • Thursday, July 31:

11:40 a.m. Judge will let the jury leave for today. They will begin Friday morning with opening statements at 8 a.m.

11:37 a.m. Judge to jury: Trial day will start at 8 a.m. Will proceed until 2 p.m. Jury will be excused at 2 p.m. every day throughout the day.

11:17 a.m. Judge told attorneys he would give jury their instructions then let them break for lunch. Prosecution expressed concern to judge about splitting their opening statements if they break for lunch.

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