5 May 2004 – LAWFUEL – A British national was charged today with extortion and tampering with consumer products for sending several adulterated food items – including baby formula
contaminated with boric acid – to the Ralphs grocery chain and demanding $180,000
to prevent poisoned food from being placed on store shelves.
David Ian Dickinson, a 43-year-old Venice resident, was arrested at his residence
yesterday by FBI agents who were executing a search warrant at his house. According
to a criminal complaint filed today in United States District Court in Los Angeles,
Dickinson confessed to the plot, admitting that he “did it.”
While Dickinson allegedly threatened to place contaminated and dangerous food
products on store shelves, there is no evidence that he actually followed through
on the threat.
The extortion scheme started on February 27 when a package was sent to the Ralphs
supermarket in Compton. The package contained four food products that the sender
claimed were “tampered items.” A letter in package was labeled “blackmail demand.”
The extortionist demanded money and stated that failure to follow the demands would
result in a wide range of tampered foods being placed into the food supply.
A subsequent analysis of the products by the Food and Drug Administration’s
Forensic Chemistry Center determined that all four products were contaminated.
Specifically, the analysis found that a container of Gerber orange juice contained
more than 50 percent hydraulic fluid. Additionally, boric acid was found in a jar
of horseradish and a container of Similac infant formula. The fourth item, a jar of
Gerber carrots, contained glass shards.
Investigators were able to determine that the package was mailed at a Post Office
in Venice. After examining video tapes from the Post Office, they also learned that
the same person who mailed the package later purchased a number of $1 “wisdom”
Also on February 27, Kroger Foods, the parent company of Ralphs, received a letter
at their Cincinnati headquarters. The letter was mailed with three $1 wisdom stamps
On March 1, the Ralphs in Compton received a letter from the extortionist and this
letter also was mailed with three $1 wisdom stamps as postage. This letter demanded
that $180,000 be placed into an account and that Ralphs distribute 9,000 debit
cards that could be used to access the account. The extortionist demanded that the
debit cards be distributed at Ralphs stores in Santa Monica, San Diego and San
Ramon. The letter further demanded that an advertisement for a “German tuba” be
placed in the March 25 issue of the Los Angeles “Recycler,” and instructed that the
PIN number to access the $180,000 be listed as the tuba’s model number.
Ralphs personnel subsequently placed the ad in the “Recycler” and established an
account in which they deposited $180,000. Pursuant to the demands made in the
letter, Ralphs began distributing the 9,000 debit cards on the afternoon of March
26. A surveillance team at the Ralphs in Santa Monica noticed a man on a bicycle
who resembled the person seen on a surveillance video taken at the Venice Post
Office when the package containing the contaminated food items was sent to Ralphs.
The man made a small purchase in the Ralphs, and he received a debit card. LAPD
officers contacted the man, who identified himself as Dickinson, and they later
observed him at his residence.
An enhanced version of the surveillance photo was shown to the manager of the
Ralphs store in Santa Monica and to the manager of Dickinson’s apartment complex;
both identified Dickinson from the photo.
On May 5, special agents with the FBI executed a search warrant at Dickinson’s
residence. At that time, they found a yellow jacket and other clothing items the he
was wearing when he mailed the tainted food products to Ralphs. Furthermore,
Dickinson admitted that he was the person in the surveillance photo and that he in
fact “did it.” The account with the $180,000 has not been accessed, but Dickinson
told investigators that he and his family were planning to leave the United States
for England in the coming days.
“We have no evidence, no knowledge and no belief that there are tainted foods on
the shelf at any Ralphs,” said United States Attorney Debra W. Yang. “No one should
be afraid to shop at Ralphs or any other retailer. The evidence indicates this was
merely an extortion attempt. This threat has been eliminated.”
Dickinson was taken into custody at his residence yesterday. A criminal complaint
was filed today, and Dickinson is scheduled to make his initial court appearance
this afternoon in United States District Court.
“An enormous amount of resources were dedicated to Mr. Dickinson’s
capture and he will be punished to the extent the law allows,” said FBI Special
Agent in Charge James M. Sheehan. “This should be a warning to any would-be
extortionist, terrorist or prankster – you will serve time regardless of whether
your threat is real or fake because the resultant fear and panic perpetrated on the
American public remains the same despite your motivation.”
Dr. Lester M. Crawford, Acting Commissioner of the FDA, stated: “FDA is fully
committed to the vigorous criminal prosecution of any individual who threatens the
safety and security of the U.S. food supply. The arrest in this case sends a clear
signal that this kind of illicit activity will not be tolerated.”
The extortion charge carries a maximum potential penalty of 20 years in federal
prison, and the food tampering charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in
A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime.
Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.
This case is the result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation
and the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, which
received assistance from the United States Postal Inspection Service.