Durham bread company owner found guilty of fraud
Posted April 11, 2011 4:14 p.m. EDT
Updated April 12, 2011 11:33 a.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — A jury on Monday found a Durham bread company owner guilty of fraud for selling products falsely labeled as gluten-free, causing dozens of customers to fall ill.
Paul Evan Seelig, 48, owner of Great Specialty Bread Co., was found guilty of 23 counts of fraud. He faces a maximum sentence of more than 17 years in prison.
A sentencing hearing for Seelig will be held Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.
Seelig admitted during testimony last week that he lied when state investigators asked him about the products he sold as gluten-free.
Seelig's defense attorneys said he did not deliberately mislead customers and blamed the inconsistencies on his supplier.
On Friday, Seelig took the stand to answer questions about how he responded when investigators from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services began looking into his company.
Seelig delayed an inspection of his home kitchen by claiming he had a heart attack, said Brett Weed, an investigator with the department's Food & Drug Protection Division.
When investigators went to Seelig's Durham home, Seelig came to the door shirtless and claimed to be Jeff Gleason, an employee. The man who called himself Gleason, Weed said, told investigators that Seelig had a heart attack, cancer and the flu and could not be reached.
"It is still kind of shocking that he would go to the trouble of creating an alias for our dealings," Weed said.
On Friday, Seelig admitted he had no heart attack and made up the Gleason persona.
During the course of the trial, jurors heard from 23 customers who bought Great Specialty bread only to be sickened after eating it.
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 which range from diarrhea and abdominal pain to irritability and depression. Celiac sufferers carefully monitor their diet and avoid foods with gluten.
"The number of complaints we received against this one company was completely unprecedented," Weed said. "(We) never had this many first-person accounts from people about products from one particular company."
Zach Becker, one of the victims who testified against Seelig, said Seelig's deception hurt the most.
"Half of this is, yeah, he poisoned us and made us all sick, but the other half is we really grew to trust him and the claims of his products," Becker said following the verdict. "It was really a rude awakening on how deceitful people can be."