Stewart Parnell of the Peanut Corporation of America testifies before congress.
Claude Ivestor of Dewy Rose, Georgia spent 8 days in the hospital after eating salmonella contaminated peanut butter crackers.
Stewart Parnell of the Peanut Corporation of America talks to us on his doorstep in Lynchburg, Virginia
Rachael Anderson of Dahlonega, Georgia says she was so sick she had to have 9 bags of fluid pumped into her and was in danger of having a heart attack.
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- It's been more than a year since that massive recall of peanut products that were produced in Southern Georgia, and still no one has seen or heard from the owner of the company that distributed the tainted product; until now. The Center for Investigative Action tracked him down.
We travelled up to Lynchburg, Virginia to the home of Stewart Parnell, the owner of the now bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America and down to Blakely to his now shuttered plant to bring new perspective to this nationwide tragedy.
You may recall that several people died and hundreds were sickened from eating tainted peanut products from the Georgia plant. However, consumers mostly associate the contamination with peanut butter. At the time of the recall, nine people had been reported dead by the Center for Disease Control. We've now learned that number has increased by two. Following the news of the contamination, the FDA swooped in and discovered several hazards at the plant, including filth and problems with record keeping regarding positive tests for salmonella. Emails from company owner Stewart Parnell revealed product that had tested positive and then again negative for salmonella were released for consumption and then redistributed by other manufacturers through the food chain. Last February, Congress held hearings and Stewart Parnell pleaded the Fifth.
When we caught up to him at his home in the middle of March, he told us,"Me and my family are devastated by what happened." Yet, Stewart Parnell has made no public apology for what happened. We asked him why. He said, "I'd love to talk." However on the advice of his attorney he won't. His attorney, Bill Gust of Roanoke, Virginia said, "I want to shed more details on how the media and Congress have 'spun' events related to this recall and will do so when the time is right."
They are concerned because the case has been handed over to the Justice Department for possible criminal charges and anything said could be an admission of guilt.
So what did we learn in our travels? Even though some believe Parnell should face criminal charges, he's living his life in Lynchburg. We know he's a private pilot but discovered he sold his single engine Mooney prior to filing for chapter 7 corporate bankruptcy. He still lives in his house and still has control of the Peanut Corporation of America headquarters located in a separate building behind his home. He says he leased the building to the company. One of the vehicles listed as a company asset in bankruptcy filings still sits in his driveway, a 2007 GMC Sierra. Documents show he has a boat registered in his name and we saw a boat in his driveway.
Some of the victims who are still recovering from the effects of food poisoning have filed claims against the company to help cover their medical bills. Rachael Anderson of Dahlonega, Ga. said, "The pain was incredible." She says her doctors told her that she nearly suffered a massive heart attack as result of dehydration and a potassium deficiency from food poisoning she says got. She says up to 9 bags of fluids had to be pumped into her. While she was sick, she says all she could eat were peanut butter crackers,little did she know that's what was making her sick.
Claude Ivestor of Dewy Rose, Georgia spent 8 days in the hospital and nearly died and although he loves peanut butter crackers, he won't eat them now. "Hmm hmm I love 'em," he said. "I still love, but there ain't no way I'm going to eat them anymore."
These two people join a group of 123 others whose financial claims against the company have been approved by the bankruptcy court. Atlanta attorney Alan Maxwell has reviewed their claims and will recommend to the bankruptcy court in the next 60 days just how much each should get from a 12 million dollar insurance settlement. The court has ordered the individual amounts not be disclosed. However, we do know that Claude Ivestor stands to get one of the larger shares.
If victims aren't satisfied with the amount of money they receive, they can still sue the manufacturers of the products they ate. These manufacturers, may have been unwitting victims themselves after being shipped salmonella tainted product from the Blakely plant. However, plaintiff attorney Ron Simon, of Simon and Luke, based in Houston, Texas says, "Liability laws still hold them responsible for any product they sell."
Parnell says he's currently looking for work but all he knows are oceanography and peanuts. He says he has a degree in oceanography but has worked in the peanut processing business since the 70's. The company was started by his father. As for his personal finances, we sent a list of questions to Parnell's attorney and not surprisingly received no response. (If you read the emails below you'll see the Parnell's preferred method of dealing with the media. So you'll see why we felt it was necessary to track him down directly.)
Simon believes Parnell should be personally liable. "Mr. Parnell made a product where they tested for salmonella, they found salmonella and they sent it out anyway. That's a criminal act and he should be punished and sent to jail for it," said Simon. That's a strong opinion, and at this point no criminal charges have been filed against Parnell.
Despite pending financial compensation, Ivestor said "If someone had to try to pay me to go through that again, they couldn't rack up enough money for me to go through that again."
Click here to see the internal company emails sent out by Stewart Parnell.
Click here to see the FDA report on the inspection of the plant after the salmonella poisoning was identified.