LOS ANGELES -- A British national has been charged with extortion and tampering with consumer products for sending several adulterated food items - including baby formula contaminated with boric acid - to the Ralphs grocery chain and demanding $180,000 to prevent poisoned food from being placed on store shelves.
David Ian Dickinson, a 43-year-old Venice, Calif. resident, was arrested at his residence yesterday by FBI agents who were executing a search warrant at his house. According to a criminal complaint filed today in United States District Court in Los Angeles, Dickinson confessed to the plot, admitting that he "did it."
While Dickinson allegedly threatened to place contaminated and dangerous food products on store shelves, there is no evidence that he actually followed through on the threat.
The extortion scheme started on Feb. 27, 2004 when a package was sent to the Ralphs supermarket in Compton. The package contained four food products that the sender claimed were "tampered items." A letter in package was labeled "blackmail demand." The extortionist demanded money and stated that failure to follow the demands would result in a wide range of tampered foods being placed into the food supply.
A subsequent analysis of the products by the Food and Drug Administration's Forensic Chemistry Center determined that all four products were contaminated. Specifically, the analysis found that a container of Gerber orange juice contained more than 50 percent hydraulic fluid. Additionally, boric acid was found in a jar of horseradish and a container of Similac infant formula. The fourth item, a jar of Gerber carrots, contained glass shards.
Investigators were able to determine that the package was mailed at a Post Office in Venice. After examining video tapes from the Post Office, they also learned that the same person who mailed the package later purchased a number of $1 "wisdom" stamps.
Also on February 27, Kroger Foods, the parent company of Ralphs, received a letter at their Cincinnati headquarters. The letter was mailed with three $1 wisdom stamps as postage.
On March 1, the Ralphs in Compton received a letter from the extortionist and this letter also was mailed with three $1 wisdom stamps as postage. This letter demanded that $180,000 be placed into an account and that Ralphs distribute 9,000 debit cards that could be used to access the account. The extortionist demanded that the debit cards be distributed at Ralphs stores in Santa Monica, San Diego and San Ramon. The letter further demanded that an advertisement for a "German tuba" be placed in the March 25 issue of the Los Angeles "Recycler," and instructed that the PIN number to access the $180,000 be listed as the tuba's model number.
Ralphs personnel subsequently placed the ad in the "Recycler" and established an account in which they deposited $180,000. Pursuant to the demands made in the letter, Ralphs began distributing the 9,000 debit cards on the afternoon of March 26. A surveillance team at the Ralphs in Santa Monica noticed a man on a bicycle who resembled the person seen on a surveillance video taken at the Venice Post Office when the package containing the contaminated food items was sent to Ralphs. The man made a small purchase in the Ralphs, and he received a debit card. LAPD officers contacted the man, who identified himself as Dickinson, and they later observed him at his residence.
An enhanced version of the surveillance photo was shown to the manager of the Ralphs store in Santa Monica and to the manager of Dickinson's apartment complex; both identified Dickinson from the photo.
On May 5, special agents with the FBI executed a search warrant at Dickinson's residence. At that time, they found a yellow jacket and other clothing items the he was wearing when he mailed the tainted food products to Ralphs. Furthermore, Dickinson admitted that he was the person in the surveillance photo and that he in fact "did it." The account with the $180,000 has not been accessed, but Dickinson told investigators that he and his family were planning to leave the United States for England in the coming days.
"We have no evidence, no knowledge and no belief that there are tainted foods on the shelf at any Ralphs," said United States Attorney Debra W. Yang. "No one should be afraid to shop at Ralphs or any other retailer. The evidence indicates this was merely an extortion attempt. This threat has been eliminated."
Dickinson was taken into custody at his residence yesterday. A criminal complaint was filed today, and Dickinson is scheduled to make his initial court appearance this afternoon in United States District Court.
"An enormous amount of resources were dedicated to Dickinson's capture and he will be punished to the extent the law allows," said FBI Special Agent in Charge James M. Sheehan. "This should be a warning to any would-be extortionist, terrorist or prankster - you will serve time regardless of whether your threat is real or fake because the resultant fear and panic perpetrated on the American public remains the same despite your motivation."
Dr. Lester M. Crawford, acting commissioner of the FDA, stated: "FDA is fully committed to the vigorous criminal prosecution of any individual who threatens the safety and security of the U.S. food supply. The arrest in this case sends a clear signal that this kind of illicit activity will not be tolerated."
The extortion charge carries a maximum potential penalty of 20 years in federal prison, and the food tampering charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.
This case is the result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations, which received assistance from the United States Postal Inspection Service.