After four days of deliberation, jurors announced Monday that they could not unanimously decide whether to convict former Blue Bell CEO Paul Kruse on federal charges of wire fraud and conspiracy, and the case linked to the ice cream company’s deadly listeria outbreak nearly a decade ago ended in a mistrial.
Prosecutors have the option of pursuing a new trial against Kruse, but a spokesperson on Monday declined to say whether they would. Of the 12-person jury, 10 jurors voted for a not-guilty verdict, Kruse defense attorney Chris Flood said.
Blue Bell suffered significant financial losses due to the listeria outbreak. The company halted production for a time in 2015 and recalled 8 million gallons of ice cream after reports of listeria started coming in. At least 10 people have fallen ill and two people – patients at a Kansas hospital in 2014 – have died from a harmful illness. bacteria in ice cream.
While Kruse learned of positive listeria tests in mid-February 2015, it wasn’t until mid-March that the company communicated the danger to the public, Blue Bell’s current CEO testified last week. Ricky Dickson. For weeks, Kruse ordered his subordinates to share listeria problems with food safety regulators, but not buyers.
Additionally, in 2011, a sample of Blue Bell ice cream that had previously been released to the public tested positive for listeria, an employee testified. When the employee brought Kruse the lab results, Kruse responded by saying, “I told you to stop that program.”
However, the charges brought by prosecutors against Kruse related only to his actions in 2015, according to the federal indictment.
Managers of schools, hospitals and grocery stores across the country testified during the trial that after Blue Bell drivers arrived to pick up ice cream in February 2015, they requested information from senior Blue Bell executives and said nothing about potential health issues with the products. .
Kruse was concerned that if Blue Bell customers got wind of a listeria outbreak in certain products, “they might leak all of its products,” federal prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi said during closing arguments. “There is fraud.
The charges Kruse was facing — one count of conspiracy and five counts of wire fraud — would each have carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
However, Flood argued during closing arguments that prosecutors went too far in their charges. After drivers removed some of their ice cream from shoppers, Blue Bell refunded the money.
A person guilty of wire fraud “intentionally devised or participated in a scheme to defraud another person with money,” according to federal law.
“I want to thank the jurors for all their hard work,” Flood said Monday. “It was clear to many of them that Paul Kruse never intended to deceive Blue Bell customers. They believed Paul Kruse was doing the best he could with the information he had at the time.”
While Blue Bell worked with federal regulators, officers noted that the company seemed reluctant to issue a formal recall or release a public statement about listeria. However, Flood noted that state and federal agencies also waited until mid-March to alert the public.
After:Blue Bell fined $17 million over listeria outbreak
A Texas Department of State Health Services official wrote in a February 26, 2015 email that “Blue Bell is now hesitant to issue a public recall notice” because it would not be “in its best interest” and “they feel the risk”. to the public is minimal” and “they are not aware of any disease. Prosecutors presented the email in court last week.
Blue Bell has already pleaded guilty in 2020 to two counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products, and Austin-based U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman – who presided over this month’s trial against Kruse – has ruled. ordered Blue Bell to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties as a result.
In 2018, the state of Texas said it had entered into an enforcement agreement with Blue Bell that allowed operations to resume under expanded oversight. During the 2015 shutdown, Blue Bell deep-cleaned its plants in Brenham, about 90 miles east of Austin; Sylacauga, Alabama; and Broken Arrow, Okla. It also replaced some equipment, reworked procedures and laid off hundreds of workers.
Blue Bell said in a statement that “this lawsuit is between the United States government and Mr. Kruse” and “we are a different and better Blue Bell today.”
“We understand that the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, and the government will make a decision on its next steps,” the statement said. “Blue Bell has learned from this difficult chapter in our company’s history, and food safety will continue to be our top priority.”