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Durham bread company owner sentenced for fraud

Posted April 12, 2011

— Durham bread company owner found guilty of fraud for selling products that made dozens of customers ill was sentenced Tuesday to between nine and 11 years in prison.

A jury on Monday found Paul Evan Seelig, 48, owner of Great Specialty Bread Co., guilty of 23 counts of fraud. He has also been ordered to pay restitution to some of his victims.

"Deceit is part of who Mr. Seelig is," Superior Court Judge Carl Fox said during the sentencing hearing.

Seelig admitted during testimony last week that he lied when state investigators asked him about the products he sold as gluten-free. Defense attorneys said he did not deliberately mislead customers and blamed the inconsistencies on his supplier.

Many of Seelig's customers have Celiac disease, and ingesting gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye, can cause them symptoms ranging from diarrhea and abdominal pain to irritability, depression and the deterioration of stomach lining. Celiac sufferers carefully monitor their diet to avoid foods with gluten.

Seelig's customers originally brought their claims to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which turned the information over to Wake County District Attorney Colon Willioughby.

"When people knowingly put adulterated or contaminated food in the food chain and they know it's going to cause injury, I think it ought to be dealt with harshly," Willioughby said.

Fox said Tuesday that Seelig showed arrogance when testifying during the trial. He noted that customers trusted Seelig and thought he was their friend. Fox said he could understand why customers were so angry.

"In this court's mind, for you to have done what you did to these folks, you might as well have stabbed them. You might as well have beaten them," Fox said.

Seelig's attorney, Blake Norman, asked for leniency, given Seelig’s poor health and apparent mental problems.

“Clearly, there’s something mentally wrong with him, to be in business seven years and think that he could get away with this and could never get caught. I don't think throwing someone in prison will help solve that. He needs long-term cognitive therapy, and that’s not something get in prison," Norman said.

Fox said he had a hard time believing Seelig's claims of health issues.

Durham bread company owner sentenced Durham bread company owner sentenced

As part of Seelig's sentence, he will undergo a mental evaluation. Fox also wants a health screen done on Seelig to determine if he is actually allergic to gluten, as he repeatedly claimed to his customers.

During the course of the trial, jurors heard from 23 customers who bought Great Specialty bread, only to be sickened after eating it.

Among those who testified was a pregnant woman whose stomach lining had deteriorated so badly from Celiac disease that she wasn't taking in enough nutrients for her child. She said the disease caused her to have a premature child. 

Two of Seelig's customers spoke during the sentencing hearing.

"He gave me samples of what he led me to believe were gluten-free bread products," victim Zach Becker said. "He sat across the table from me and watched me eat poison."

Becker said for two weeks he ate Seelig's products and wrote about it on his blog devoted to living gluten-free. 

During the sentencing hearing, Seelig apologized to his victims. 

"I wish I could turn the clock back to 2009 and change my actions," he said. “I hope in their faith and in their hearts they have room for forgiveness. I pray each day that they will forgive me."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate gluten labeling or levels.

"What we would hope is that this case becomes an illustration of why the federal government does need to move forward with determining what that level is because people can be harmed," state agriculture department spokesman Brian Long said.

111 Comments

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  • ifcdirector Apr 13, 5:36 p.m.

    Make some people with a questionable illness sick on bread and get nine years. Get drunk and murder a ballerina with your car and get almost nothing. Oh the difference is in the latter case you are a rich doctor. Two systems. Two outcomes. Way of the world.

  • dancm2000 Apr 13, 11:14 a.m.

    The guy knowingly and deliberately sold bread laced with what amounts to poison for people with CD. he knew it was poison for these people and these children. He did this well over a hundred times to men, women, and, again, to children. Not just that he specifically targeted these people and these children BECAUSE he knew they were especially susceptible to this poison.

    If he poisoned your child, deliberately and because he knew that particular poison would hurt your particular child, what would you want? If he poisoned 20 children in this way shouldn't he serve time for each time he poisoned a kid? Would you want him to serve time specifically for poisoning your kid? Is 5-6 months for each deliberate poisoning really that bad? You wouldn't want 5-6 months for your kid?

  • Butterflies Apr 13, 11:10 a.m.

    Wow people, you have to look at the BIGGER picture here! Thank God this was not more serious than it was, but it very well could of been. And why does his sentence have to be any less, for our system to make rapist and murderers sentences bigger? This case has NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING to do with Raymond Cook or anybody else. Each case is looked at individually! I have a severely allergic son to just about EVERY food! Let someone put MILK in a food and they dont tell me? Really people!

  • jmclawson82 Apr 12, 7:06 p.m.

    Didn't the Raymond Cook get a lighter sentence that this and he was drunk and killed someone. Just goes to show you.

  • jrfergerson Apr 12, 6:57 p.m.

    must be a slow day - the wral site has not changed much since this morning

  • Ranger of the North Apr 12, 6:40 p.m.

    This guy deserves every minute he spends in jail. He is an ex con who was previously convicted of stealing from a children's charity. I suspect his bread company is just the tip of the iceberg. He deliberately endangered people's health just to make a few dollars. Society is better off with him locked up.

  • rebeccagfernandez Apr 12, 6:37 p.m.

    Oh, and he sent crazed threatening emails to many of the victims, from himself and his alias, back in 2009. Here's an excerpt of one written by alias "Jeff Gleason" shortly after the news story first ran:

    "...The only ones who get hurt by all this is the innocent ones, and the collateral damage of war... Now that we are mad, the bad thing is you do not make a person or company with plenty of money in the bank mad at you. They will destroy anything in there path, especially the ones that don't know how to tell the truth."

    Many of the victims were spooked out of testifying, until the numbers began to grow big enough that they didn't feel he'd target them in the future. The Kathy Taft stuff only confirmed those fears. Because he delivered the bread, he has the address of every victim.

  • jeffingarner Apr 12, 6:33 p.m.

    wral.com is anti-free speach. there are other options and advenues to express one's opinion. No thanks Big Brother. I choose to be free.

  • babyblue1981 Apr 12, 6:29 p.m.

    www.celiac.org for the facts about Celiac Disease

  • boneymaroney13 Apr 12, 6:26 p.m.

    ECCGC - what is wrong with our system is, alcohol is socially acceptable, Gluten is not. Go figure -

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