Local public health officials are advising restaurants in the Lake Tahoe area to watch out for a food-poisoning suspect following reports that a single man is responsible for multiple cases of food tampering at a restaurant and a grocery store.
In one suspected incident in South Lake Tahoe, a 12-year-old boy became sick and was hospitalized for symptoms related to food poisoning after eating at a Baja Fresh restaurant.
South Lake Tahoe police are trying to identify the man suspected of tampering with food at the chain restaurant’s salsa bar in the Crescent V shopping center and at the Hot Wok self-serve food court inside Raley’s in the same shopping center. .
The incidents have led public health officials to notify restaurants about the potential for further poisoning attempts. Both South Lake Tahoe and neighboring Stateline, Nev., are popular tourist destinations with a number of buffets where the public has access to food.
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Greg Stanton, director of the Environmental Management Division, said the county has contacted any restaurant in the South Lake Tahoe area that has food accessible to the public. While officials have suggested taking any precautions restaurant managers feel is necessary, they have stopped short of suggesting that food should not be kept out in public, he said. The incidents have not been widespread enough to suggest such precautions, he said.
Phil Ulibarri, a spokesman for the Washoe County, Nev., health department, said officials have gone through a similar process of notifying restaurants about the incidents. Police Department investigators collected samples of the contaminants for laboratory analysis. Results were pending Tuesday.
In the Raley’s incident, an unidentified man walked into the grocery store, approached the self-serve food display in the food court and intentionally dispensed an unknown substance on top of the food. The man then walked out of the store and left the area on foot. Officers were unable to find him.
A review of store surveillance video indicated that the same man has committed the same act on at least three previous occasions, beginning on or about Nov. 8, police said.
The incident at Baja Fresh came to light after operators of the Mexican restaurant heard about the Raley’s food tampering from a Nov. 16 police news release. The management of Baja Fresh contacted police to report a similar incident.
Baja Fresh management noted a strong chemical odor similar to bleach in the salsa self-serve bar. Police officers learned that several incidents had occurred at Baja Fresh before issuing its news release about the Raley’s food tampering. The 12-year-old reported feeling sick Nov. 19 after eating at Baja Fresh.
Police investigators, who believe the incidents are related, are attempting to get security camera video and photos from Baja Fresh.
A man who identified himself as the Baja Fresh manager said he was not authorized to comment to reporters.
Casino officials in Stateline, Nev., said security guards are closely watching the surveillance cameras for anyone resembling the suspect.
“We’re just trying to be secure and as vigilant as possible,” said Guy Hall, director of hotel, food and beverage at Montbleu Resort Casino.
Hall noted that most of the buffet’s food stations are manned with personnel, so it would be difficult to tamper with the spread.
“We would see anyone that would be up to ill harm,” Hall said, adding that the suspect’s image will be circulated with restaurant staff when the buffet opens on Thanksgiving.
The casino’s buffet is typically open only on holidays and weekends.
John Packer, spokesman for Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino, said it would be hard to taint the buffet without being caught, due to the establishment’s extensive surveillance system.
“You’d be watched all the way,” he said. “(The buffet) is on the 18th floor. You can’t just do something and run out the door without being observed very carefully. Someone can be tracked from the buffet all the way to the parking lot.”
Willfully mingling poison or harmful substance with any food, drink, medicine or pharmaceutical product is a felony punishable by two to five years in state prison, according to authorities.
The man shown in surveillance photos is described as white, approximately 5 feet 7 inches tall, and with a thin build. He was last seen wearing a black hat, dark sunglasses, a black long-sleeved shirt, a black backpack and blue jeans.
Anyone with information is asked to call the South Lake Tahoe Police Department at 530-542-6100 or Secret Witness at 530-541-6800. Anyone who may have become ill as a result of the incidents is advised to contact a medical provider and to call the El Dorado County Environment Management Division at 530-573-3453 or 530-621-5300.