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Rancher cleared of poisoning

January 20, 2007|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

A criminal prosecution against a Central Valley nut farmer accused of poisoning a worker with methyl bromide unraveled this week after a defense investigation concluded that the toxic soil fumigant had not caused Arturo Becerra's ailments.

The case against Ripon, Calif.-based Golden West Nuts, its co-owner, ranch manager and foreman, was the first criminal pesticide prosecution of a California company in 14 years, and was closely watched throughout the agricultural industry.

The allegations that the farm worker had been poisoned and that the company had covered it up deeply disturbed the small community of Ripon, where Golden West Nuts and its founders are widely respected.

Prosecutor Debbie Smith, of the California District Attorneys Assn.'s Environmental Circuit Prosecutors Project, declined to discuss details of the case with reporters outside Stanislaus County Superior Court on Thursday, noting that Arturo Becerra is pursuing a workers' compensation claim.

But in court she moved to dismiss all felony counts and most misdemeanors against company co-owner Jon Hoff, Oakdale ranch manager John Becerra -- Arturo's brother -- and foreman Everardo Ruiz, all of whom could have faced jail time if convicted.

Instead, the corporation and John Becerra each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of failing to notify the Stanislaus County agricultural commissioner of its intent to use the highly regulated soil fumigant.

The company was assessed a $10,000 penalty, and John Becerra was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service. All charges against Hoff and Ruiz were dropped.

"The fact is that methyl bromide didn't make [Arturo Becerra] sick. So the causation to any injury, which makes it all a felony, just disappeared," said defense attorney Kirk McAllister, who represented both Hoff and the corporation. "We're talking about a good company .... Their clients all over the world were watching this."

The investigation was triggered by a doctor's report to the Stanislaus County agricultural commissioner after Arturo Becerra fell gravely ill in March 2004 and was hospitalized for eight days. He told investigators that he had been sprayed in the face with methyl bromide when a hose broke as he was fumigating almond tree holes.

He also contended that his supervisors ordered him back to work and failed to offer medical help when he complained that he was sick. By the next day, he said, he was stumbling and vomiting. His son drove him to the hospital.

The initial blood test indicated the presence of methyl bromide. According to the agricultural commissioner's investigative report, John Becerra told doctors his brother had been sickened by the less toxic -- and less regulated -- pesticide Roundup, and brought a Roundup label to the hospital.

Golden West's restricted-materials permit did not include methyl bromide. Nor had the company notified the county commissioner within 24 hours of fumigating, as required by law, records show.

So severe were the findings that state Agricultural Commissioner Dennis Gudgel referred the case for criminal prosecution -- the first and only time he has taken such action.

Hoff, John Becerra and Ruiz were charged with failing to provide training, respirators and other protective equipment, as well as failing to provide medical care. John Becerra faced a separate felony count for allegedly presenting regulators with false or forged documents.

But McAllister said the investigation by his toxicologist revealed no evidence of harmful levels of methyl bromide in Arturo Becerra's blood. His symptoms were not consistent with inhalation or skin contact with the poison, McAllister added, and workers interviewed by the defense said they had not seen Arturo Becerra stumbling -- an account one worker had previously given.

McAllister suggested that other medications that Arturo Becerra was taking for pre-existing ailments might have caused his symptoms.

For Ripon, resolution of the case comes as a relief. While he stressed that he does not speak for everyone, Ripon Record News Editor Joe Franscella said: "I don't think anybody's surprised to find that Hoff and Golden West didn't ... intentionally put anyone's life in danger. They are a big important part of the community ... and I think people were more surprised that it had ever gotten that far."

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lee.romney@latimes.com

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