A 68-year-old man faces federal charges for allegedly placing sewing needles in packaged meat for sale at the Shop 'n Save in west Belleville.
Ronald G. Avers, of Belleville, faces seven counts of tampering with consumer products.
Federal investigators say Avers admitted to placing needles into the meat multiple times "just for the hell of it," according to court documents.
Avers, who was in federal court Thursday for a first appearance on the charges, was stunned when U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald G. Wilkerson told him he was facing a maximum of 10 years in prison on each of the seven counts. "Oh, God!" he shouted, leaned forward in his chair and dropped his head
FBI special agents and Belleville police arrested Avers on Tuesday after grocery store employees recognized him as a suspect in past tamperings. An open package of sewing needles was found in Avers' pickup truck, according to court documents.
Avers, who is described in federal documents as a disabled veteran, admitted to inserting sewing needles in the meat products during an interview with Belleville police, according to court documents, telling FBI investigators he concealed the needle in the holder for his portable oxygen tank before inserting it into the product.
When shown a surveillance photograph, he admitted the photo was of him, inserting a needle into a package of meat, according to court records. Avers allegedly told investigators, "It was stupidity, I didn't want to hurt nobody."
Avers, with oxygen tubing in his nose, was dressed in black jeans and black shirt with stripes. He was shackled at the wrist and ankles as he sat at the defense table with his appointed federal public defender, Todd Schultz. Assistant United States Attorney Suzanne Garrison is the prosecutor on the case.
Wilkerson set a hearing for Avers at 11:15 a.m. Monday in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen C. Williams.
Avers told Wilkerson he is divorced and has a son in his 30's. The son was not in the courtroom. Avers told the judge he attended two years in high school but could read and write and understood the charges against him.
At least one customer, located at 4201 N. Belt West, was injured by the needles and another found a needle in her mouth while eating, according to the charges.
Avers allegedly placed the needles in meat on seven different occasions between May 2013 and July 2014. The latest incident occurred on July 12, when a needle was found in a package of pork steaks.
Security footage taken at the store shows Avers placing the needles in the meat while riding a motorized scooter and carrying his portable oxygen tank, according to prosecutors.
Six customers reported to Shop 'n Save they found sewing needles in packaged meat purchased at the store during the time period. In one instance, an employee also found sewing needles in a package of pork chops.
Some customers who purchased the meat products that Avers tampered with complained to store officials and that's when it was found out that someone was putting sewing needles into meat products at the store, according to Jeff Swanson, a spokesman for Shop 'n Save.
"The most important thing that we want our customers and employees to know is that their safety is top priority with us," Swanson said.
Any customer who purchased fresh meat from the Belleville store prior to July 12 can return the meat and get a full refund or exchange, Swanson said.
"If you have any concerns whatsoever, come back to the store and we''ll take care of (it)," he said. "This was isolated to one department in one store. We have no reason to believe any tampering occurred outside of the Belleville North Belt store."
Avers told police he only stuck needles into meat products at the North Belt West location where he did all of his shopping.
Shop 'n Save conducted its own investigation using video surveillance inside of the store and outside on the parking lot. The video captured a white male subject approximately 70 who carries a portable oxygen tank and rides a motorized scooter in the store on frequent occasions handling packaged meat products. That's how Avers was identified as the person who was tampering with meat products at the store, the criminal complaint states.
Avers was arrested Tuesday after store personnel called police to notify them that Avers was in the store. This time, though, he purchased some items and left the store.
When law enforcement officials asked and he consented to let them search his Ford F250 blue pick up truck, "they found an open package of sewing needles in the center console of the truck," the complaint reads.
When questioned about putting needles into meat products at the store, he said, "Every now and then I would stick one in a hamburger," the complaint states. Later, during the interview, he said in reference to the needles, "mostly hamburger, a couple of times I did it with a roast, maybe a pork chop every now and then."
Avers said he did it three or four times starting last year. According to the criminal complaint, he told law enforcement officials that he did not know why he did it, did not now what he was thinking at the time and that he had no reason for doing it. At one point, he said he did it "Just for the hell of it."
Avers, according to the criminal complaint, concealed the needle in his oxygen tank until he was inside of the store, where he would then stick into a meat product.
During the interview with police, Avers reportedly said, "It was stupidity. I didn't want to hurt nobody."
Reporter Dan Kelley contributed some information for this story.