Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fake Gluten Free "Bread Man" Guilty; Receives Decade Long Sentence

In 1996, Paul Seelig and his young son set off on a trip to Cleveland, Ohio. At the urging of his 5 year old son, they were on their way to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At some point during the trip, Paul decides to take the scenic route through the Amish country of Ohio. Somewhere near Millersburg, Ohio, they see a sign for a farm/bakery called Risn' Bakeries. Even more intriguing, the company is offering an extensive array of Gluten Free products like bread and bagels, grown and baked right there. Paul and his extended family have a history of digestive diseases and eat wheat free/Gluten Free. Paul pulls in and meets with the owner of Risn' Bakeries, Jonas Jones. After a discussion, Paul and Jonas strike a deal where Risn' Bakeries will supply Paul's company Great Specialty Products with Gluten Free baked goods. Although Paul's company is not currently selling GF goods, he takes a typed letter from Jonas promising those goods at any point in the future and keeps it in his back pocket. Although it is often difficult because Jonas does not have electricity, email, phone, text messages, fax, Facebook, twitter, cell phone, internet or even an address other than SR 77, Paul and Jonas keep in touch over the years. They develop a routine where Paul sends emails and then waits for Jonas to ride in his horse and buggy over to Kinko's where he checks his email. Paul uses the email address risnbakeries@yahoo.com to reach Jonas.

Fast forward to the fall of 2009. Paul is preparing for the 2009 North Carolina State Fair where his company Great Specialty Products has been a vendor for the past several years. Although Paul is very familiar with Gluten Free products, he is beginning to hear more buzz about it. His long time customers are beginning to ask him to carry them. He wonders what to do for a minute and then reaches into his back pocket and pulls out that 13 year old letter from Amish farmer/baker Jonas Jones. "Eureka" Paul exclaims as dollar signs form in his eyes. Per their normal routine, Paul sends Jonas an email to order some Gluten Free goodies. Before you know it, Jonas is over at the Kinko's checking his email and receives Paul's order. Jonas gets to work immediately and begins shipping Paul COD deliveries of Gluten Free bread and bagels straight to his booth at the state fair in October 2009. Word of mouth quickly spreads through the Gluten Free/Celiac community around Raleigh, North Carolina which is home to the state fair. One thing is for sure, despite not having electricity, that Jonas can bake some delicious Gluten Free baked goods. State fair customers repeatedly call them "Too good to be true".

Paul immediately gets started on his marketing plan for the NEW Great Specialty Products now featuring Gluten Free items. He decides to keep the Amish and Gluten Free parts of the story, but then makes a few modifications. Instead of Jonas growing and baking all the goods, Paul decides that he'll tell customers that he is growing and baking everything himself. How about a 150,000 square foot dedicated Gluten Free facility? Sure why not, sounds like an impressive facility. Hmm, wait, what if someone wants a tour? That's easy; it's located at RDU airport behind tight TSA security - that will deter them. Maybe a 400 acre family owned farm in Ohio where all the ingredients are grown and no outside suppliers? Great idea. How about some patented recipes and baking processes? Sounds great. Military, State and Federal government contracts? Yep. Constant testing of his products for the presence of Gluten keenly detailed on a calendar hanging in his office? Most definitely. Company history of 12 years because family cannot eat Gluten due to Crohn's Disease and other digestive issues. He's got it all figured out now. With the hype built in the Gluten Free community as a result of the state fair, Paul sets off to rework his Web site. Since Jonas doesn't know what a camera is and Paul doesn't have any good photos of the GF products for his Web site, he decides that he'll borrow some from the Internet. Nothing wrong with that, right? He finds some great pictures on a website for a company that makes gluten-filled baked goods in New Jersey called Tribecca Oven. He finds some more pictures that represent the Gluten Free desserts Jonas is making on another website for Bindi. The new and improved website for Great Specialty Products featuring Jonas' awesome GF products hits the web on November 20, 2009.

About this time, Paul meets up with a local Celiac/Gluten Free blogger (yours truly). Paul tells the "story" of his company and gives samples to the blogger. The products are amazing and the story is convincing enough that the blogger writes a detailed post highlighting Great Specialty Products to the 300 daily readers of his blog. These GF products are unbelievable; tasting and feeling just like the gluten containing baked goods that the blogger remembers before he went GF.  The blogger usually waits about a week to see if any side effects from the products occur - acting as a guinea pig - before he posts.  He does not have any testing policies in place as the need has not arisen and testing kits are expensive.  The sales begin streaming in and Paul struggles to make all the necessary deliveries.  Dozens of Raleigh area GF consumers are ordering and enjoying Paul's (Jonas') products. They all are so happy they can have normal tasting Gluten Free products. They all are told the same story by Paul as outlined above. No longer do they have to eat differently than their friends or family, these products are good enough for gluten addicts too. The Gluten Free community rejoices!

Then tragedy strikes for Paul on November 25, 2009. An unhappy customer leaves a comment on the blog warning others that she has become sick from Paul's products. Paul is beside himself. He must get to the bottom of this. He immediately visits the customer to retrieve product so that it can be tested for Gluten. He tells the customer that he will have the EPA and Health Department immediately test the product while he tests via swab in his 150,000 square foot facility down to the delivery trucks themselves. He informs the customer the next day that the product tested for 19 PPM. The customer is not convinced and decides to call the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to file a complaint. Over the next several days, two more customers complain to the Department of Agriculture (the agency responsible for regulating bakeries - not the EPA or Health Department). The Department of Agriculture attempts to contact Paul to investigate the complaints. Paul attempts to contact Jonas to get to the root of the problem. After receiving no response, Paul hops on a plane on December 16, 2009 to Millersburg, Ohio. He informs Jonas of the complaints. Jonas is bewildered. Together they tour the fields where oats are growing. Paul immediately points out to Jonas that a neighboring Amish farm is growing wheat. They investigate further to find that both farms are sharing wagons and buggies to haul harvested wheat and oats. Uh oh. Paul instructs one of his employees to call all customers to warn them of the cross contamination. Customers can cancel orders if they so choose or receive a refund if the delivery has already been made. The NC Dept of Ag continues to turn up the heat on the investigation as more and more complaints are received. They eventually receive "an unprecedented number of complaints" against Great Specialty Products. The GF community here in Raleigh is well connected and the word has spread quickly. Paul is now scared and decides to stall the investigation as much as possible by inventing fake aliases, facilities and an array of illnesses until he and Jonas can get the situation under control.

FACTS
Do you believe the story that has just been told? No, well neither did 12 citizens of Wake County who served as jurors (I'll call them "The Gluten Free 12") during a criminal trial featuring Paul Seelig as the defendant. Believe it or not, what has been told above is a summary of the actual story Paul Seelig testified to (under oath) while on the stand in his defense during the trial. Now let's get to the facts (as uncovered by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, the North Carolina Department of Justice, the Wake County District Attorney's Office and the Celiac/Gluten Free community of the Raleigh area) shall we?
 

Jonas Jones and Risn' Bakeries were never proven to exist by either the prosecutors or Paul himself. Fake invoices from Risn' Bakeries that contained no address, contact information or product descriptions were submitted as evidence during Paul's defense. Paul testified that he willingly offered to drive up to Ohio to show them where the farm was located. The investigators had already done exhaustive research with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the Holmes County Health Department, the FDA and USDA and found no record of Risn' Bakeries or Jonas Jones. Paul's defense attorney pointed out that no one ever went with Paul prompting the Wake County Assistant District Attorney Jason Waller to counter, "You don't go to the North Pole to find out whether Santa Claus exists do you?" While Paul testified that his company has been in business for 12 years, Great Specialty Products was actually registered in Durham in 2007. Additionally, the nearest Kinko's (Now FedEx Office) to Millersburg, Ohio is located in Canton some 34 miles away. Quite a trip on a horse and buggy for Jonas, huh?

Testimony and invoices from International Gourmet Foods and Tribecca Oven showed deliveries of gluten containing bread to both the state fair and Paul's "facility" which was actually his home in Durham. Lonnie Williard from Tribecca Oven testified that her company "is a Gluten machine" and that Paul had no authorization to use its product photos or sell its products as Gluten Free. Paul sent a letter from a fake legal firm threatening to sue Tribecca Oven unless it paid him money for slander/damages after representatives from the company left blog post comments in an attempt to inform customers of the truth.

Testimony from 27 of Paul's former customers occurred during the 2 week, 2 day trial. Testimony ranged from victims getting violently ill to breaking out in painful DH rashes to delivering a 3.5 pound pre-term baby at 30 ½ weeks. In several cases children were sickened by Paul. One three year old child who was recently diagnosed with Diabetes was also damaged by Paul's misrepresentation of the number of carbohydrates in his bagels.  The misrepresentation of carbs (10g instead of 57g) caused the child's parents to dose the child with the incorrect amount of insulin.

Testimony from one of Paul's former employees was particularly interesting. She testified to going to stores like BJs, Costco and Sam's Club with Paul and purchasing gluten containing bagels which she then repackaged and sold under Paul's direction to Great Specialty Products customers as Gluten Free. She also testified that Paul instructed her to not talk to customers as she made deliveries and to redirect all questions to Paul himself. Paul also told her to tell customers that the products were indeed Gluten Free at the state fair.

Paul testified that he made a trip to Ohio on December 16, 2009 and personally sees wheat and oats growing - his entire defense is based on this cross contamination. Anyone else been to or lived in Ohio during December? I lived there for 23 years, less than 2 hours from Millersburg. Not too many crops growing during the winter with potential snow on the ground that I recall.

I personally called Bindi in early December 2009 after reports that Paul was delivering its specialty desserts as GF to determine whether they were indeed GF. The company said no, so I showed it Paul's website featuring Bindi's stolen photos. Bindi said it would "take care of this" and a few days later Paul had removed all the GF specialty desserts from his website.

Paul sent a threatening email to me on December 6, 2009 stating "if I hear that kind of bull again, I will take appropriate action" and "I would and more importantly will start a law suit against you" after I informed him and others that I was testing his products for Gluten with the EZ Gluten home test kits. My intent was to share the test results (positive or negative) with the readers of my blog. Believing his law suit threat, I was unable to provide a warning post or email response to what I knew about the situation. Thankfully others in the community could and did.

Paul attempted to stall the investigation by the Department of Agriculture by using an alias of Jeff Gleason. As Jeff Gleason, he informed the investigators that Paul Seelig had suffered a massive heart attack and was flown to Cedars Sinai in California for treatment. He did not believe that Paul would live. On other occasions, he dodged investigators by saying he had been quarantined for 14 days due to H1N1 infection or was unable to meet due to his chemotherapy treatments for cancer. The Department of Agriculture received 29 complaints in total although it is assumed there were many more affected customers who did not file complaints. In January 2010, investigators grew tired and moved on shutting down Great Specialty Products. Under the Jeff Gleason alias, Paul also sent threatening emails to customers blaming bloggers for the situation. Great Specialty Products would no longer donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to local food banks, the University of North Carolina Celiac Research Center or Military toys for tots. Quotes like "I guess little Johnny won't be getting any toys this year because of these bloggers trashing our name" and "the last thing you want to do is make a company with a large bank account mad at you".  Bloggers including myself were also compared to KKK members and Nazi Germany soldiers who unduly persecuted Paul's family during WWII.  When did UNC start a Celiac Research Center?  Court evidence showed that Paul Seelig made less than $4,000 from this scam.

In an especially low blow, Paul contacted the Raleigh Police Department to turn in a completely innocent person (some enemy of his) for the murder of State Board of Education member Kathy Taft in an attempt to get his GF fraud charges dropped. Unbeknownst to Paul, detectives had already arrested a suspect. My guess is that this kind of payback is what everyone involved in his trial has to look forward to in 10 years when Seelig is released from prison.

Paul has twice before been convicted of related crimes (grand theft and wire fraud), once in 1991 in California and again in 2002 in Federal Court in Montana. He has presented fake documents in court in the past. These charges fall in line with a long history of fraudulent and dishonest behavior.

Experts from the University of Nebraska's Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP) provided expert testimony in court about their testing procedures on multiple products submitted by Paul's customers that returned Gluten content > 5,000 PPM. Testimony from the Director of FARRP, Dr. Steven Taylor, highlighted how his lab is a leader in the U.S. for testing Gluten in products for a consortium of 57 companies. His lab tested 12,000 products in 2010 with 25% of those tests being for Gluten. He had not previously seen a submitted product score > 5,000 PPM Gluten. While doing testing for Quaker Oats, Dr. Taylor stated that his lab found results of no detectible Gluten to around 1,000 PPM in various samples. Quaker knew it had cross contamination of its oats and sought out FARRP testing to determine the level. This testimony on a proven study of cross contamination debunks Paul's story of cross contamination at Risn' Bakeries as the reason why his customers were sickened.  Even if Risn' Bakeries really existed.

The defense attorney in this case made a motion to dismiss all charges due to the fact that there is currently no law stating what the term Gluten Free means for consumer products. This was particularly irritating because of the fact that the FDA has not acted on the proposed labeling term Gluten Free of > 20 PPM even though it was supposed to finalize the term in 2008 and enact law around that term in 2010 (per FALCPA passed in 2006). With no final ruling on Gluten Free labeling, the door is open to companies like Great Specialty Products to defraud and sicken GF consumers. Each company can determine what putting a Gluten Free label on a product means to them, rather than being held to a standard. If you are interested in helping to nudge along the FDA, please visit the site 1in133.org for more information. The organizers (including Jules Shepard) are planning the first ever Gluten Free Food Labeling Summit in Washington, D.C. on May 4, 2011 that will feature a 12-foot tall Gluten Free cake. There are 3 actions you can take to help the cause. Until this regulation can be finalized, it's best to consume products that have been certified Gluten Free (GFCO for example).

THE VERDICT

After deliberating for less than 2 hours, "The Gluten Free 12" came back with a verdict of guilty on all counts against Paul Seelig for Obtaining Property by False Pretenses. Because Seelig has a related history of fraud and deceit with 2 previous convictions, the prosecution asked the court for a stipulation on all the convictions of an aggravating factor. This allows the judge to sentence in the maximum range of punishment (10 to 12 months per charge). Wake County Superior Court Judge Carl Fox then proceeded to offer some harsh words for Seelig including– "The hardest crime to break someone of is dishonesty", "Stealing money from people is one thing, but poisoning them to the point where they cannot absorb nutrients or deliver a pre-term baby is a whole other level", "It's probably a good thing that your children haven't had contact with you while you've been in prison the last 9 months. I've seen it too many times where parents are in and out of court and the children end up there at some point in the future", "It appears that being dishonest is just part of who Paul Seelig is" and "You might as well have just stabbed or beaten these people, I've seen attempted murder victims who were less hurt than these victims". The judge ended with telling Seelig "I'm not sure if this is the last time you'll be in court or not, but if you don't change your ways you will die in prison". Judge Fox then sentenced Paul Seelig to 110 – 132 months in prison (9-11 years) as well as paying restitution to the victims should he ever be granted work release (although he cannot work in anything involving commerce). Judge Fox also ordered that Seelig repay the nearly $12,000 of attorney's fees for his defense lawyer as well as undergo a full mental and health evaluation. Unfortunately, Seelig was not sentenced to 10 years of having head to toe poison ivy – something my wife wanted for him after she watched me endlessly itch my DH reaction to his fake Gluten Free products. You can learn more about DH and see pictures of my outbreak in this post.

MANY THANKS

I'd like to take a brief moment to thank the many folks involved in this case. I know I am forgetting some, so my apologies. The folks from the NC Department of Agriculture – Joel Keith, Bret Weed, Jim Melvin, Kay Snipes, Joan Sims, Shirley Burch, Amy Alford and Anita McMullen. The two fine Wake County Assistant District Attorneys prosecuting this case – Jason Waller and Shawn Evans as well as Wake County Superior Court Judge Carl Fox. The folks at the NC Department of Justice – Anne Brown, John Corne and Faison Hicks. Thanks also to the 45 witnesses (many of whom were victims) who testified in this trial on behalf of the Celiac/Gluten Free community. I'd also like to thank the various media members who have covered this case, especially Andrea Weigl from the Raleigh News & Observer. Andrea has been following the case closely, and wrote the first media story on this case, and was a receptive ear when I first called her back in December 2009. Finally, big thanks to "The Gluten Free 12" – the 12 jurors who gave up 2 weeks and 2 days of their normal lives to hear a twisted story about Paul Seelig poisoning Gluten Free consumers. I'm sure you've heard enough about Gluten Free and Celiac Disease to last the rest of your lives.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Sorry for the long recap, but this story is one and a half years in the making. While I'm not overjoyed that someone will be spending the next decade of his life in prison, people have to be accountable for their actions. Whether or not the FDA has finalized the term Gluten Free for product labels, companies cannot lie about the ingredients or origins of its products. The safety of the food supply for those of us with dietary restrictions is absolutely critical. I've seen a lot of uproar over the fact that Seelig got a decade sentence while murderers and drug dealers get much less time. Paul Seelig is actually lucky in my opinion that he didn't kill someone during this 3 month fake Gluten Free fiasco. He very easily could have fed these products he advertised as wheat free/gluten free to someone with a severe wheat allergy and killed them. Hopefully this post will help educate those of you making those comments on just how serious the crimes Paul Seelig committed were. Celiac Disease is a serious health concern and requires a lifelong Gluten Free diet. Failure to adhere to this diet causes damage to our bodies which can result in death. This is not some group of whiny consumers who got sick while trying to purchase products for the latest fad diet. For those of you still in doubt, I invite you to attempt a Gluten Free diet for a period of time so you can walk a mile in our shoes – then get back to me.

11 comments:

Fred said...

Very thorough, Zach.

salliepritchard said...

Thank you, thank you for being so diligent on behalf of GF people. We deserve better and hopefully with your drive we will get better!

Rebecca said...

Excellent recap. So glad it's over. I didn't know about the restitution or the legal fees. That makes me happy, since we all know he's a greedy jerk.

Tim said...

Eureka! I've only made it part way through the recap above but as a bona fide member of the Gluten Free Twelve, I'll be back to finish reading it later tonight. Blessings, Tim Hall, aka #11

Zach said...

Tim, let me know if I missed anything or got it way wrong since you were there the entire time.

Kathy J said...

Great recap Zach! Justice was served! I tried to feel sorry for him when he finally read an apology to us, but knowing that it was just another lie/ploy to get leniency in his sentence, I just couldn't. I hope he sits there for 10+ years and thinks about what he did to us. I also hope the Federal Govt (finally) sees what not having a labeling law can do. I too would like to thank the DA's, the judge, the jury, those who testified and everyone else who had a hand in seeing this to a rightful conclusion!!!!

Ashlee said...

Thank you so much for this information. I had been following the case but did not know this much detail.

Lauren said...

Thank you for posting this in such detail! Very much glad it's over.

Also, I wanted to let you know that I thought of Peace China (in downtown Raleigh) recently and decided to check their website. Their website does list the gluten free items. You should check it out if you haven't. I had the moo goo gai pan a long time ago.

Marz said...

Wow, this is unbelievable! People like him can't be changed - he'll be a fraudster his whole life. I've dealt with a similar person before, managed to lie his way into a high position at my workplace, when he didn't have any qualifications/experience for it. Just made up stories and was so charasmatic/convincing everyone just believed him.

Having gluten-intolerance and DH myself (And by the way DH also only started a few months *after* going gluten free), those pictures of your outbreak actually gave me physical discomfort. ;) No-one can explain how damn itchy that rash is, it's crazy. And that may be "tame" compared to the celiac symptoms that others suffered through after this fiasco, not to mention neural damage etc.

Christopher said...

AMEN! BROTHER! to everything you said. especially the part about walking a mile or two in our shoes. this disease has been the biggest depressing aspect of my life. from being a little kid to being an almost 23 year old adult now, the disease still effects not only my diet constantly but as well contributes to my mental health....and this being my next question? has there been any studies on having Celiac Spru Disease and depression?

~Chris
glutenfreeNC4life

Zach said...

Seelig's NC Department of Correction Offender Public Information page ->

http://webapps6.doc.state.nc.us/opi/viewoffender.do?method=view&offenderID=1223940&searchLastName=seelig&listurl=pagelistoffendersearchresults&listpage=1

Project release date is 8/20/2019

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