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Guilty Plea in Ralphs Extortion Case

LOS ANGELES - Federal authorites have cracked the case of a Southern California resident who tried to extort $180,000 from Ralphs by threatening to tamper with food products and plant them in the retailer’s stores.

The suspect in the case, David Dickinson, a British national living in California, admitted sending adulterated products to Ralphs as part of an extortion scheme. He has pleaded guilty to federal charges of extortion and tampering with consumer products. The guilty plea came Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, as part an agreement Dickinson made with prosecutors.

Although Dickinson could receive a maximum 25-year sentence, the plea bargain and federal guidelines make it likely he'll spend less time than that in prison. Dickinson, who was living in the United States on an expired visa and is currently being held without bond, is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 18.

Ralphs said it would not comment on the initial incident, or on the suspect’s admission of guilt. Assistant U.S. attorney general Beverly Reid O'Connell told Progressive Grocer that the outcome of the case was due mainly to "the diligent efforts of the FBI," which undertook the investigation along with the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigation and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Late last February, Dickinson anonymously sent poisoned baby formula, baby food laced with pieces of glass, an infant juice drink containing hydraulic fluid, and a jar of horseradish contaminated by boric acid to Ralphs' Compton, Calif. offices. The products were accompanied by a note making clear the sender's intention to blackmail the grocery chain.

Dickinson said in the letter that he would put adulterated products on store shelves if he did not receive $180,000, according to prosecutors, who added that the adulterated products never entered the food supply.

In another letter sent several days later, Dickinson directed that the money be placed in an account he could draw on with a debit card, prosecutors said. Agents later saw him picking up the card at a Ralphs location in Santa Monica. The FBI searched Dickinson's home in May and discovered drafts of extortion letters on his computer.

Dickinson told authorities that he had hatched the extortion plot against Ralphs to get money to finance his infant son's college education.

-- Bridget Goldschmidt
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