A woman has been charged with several felony and misdemeanor counts, including one for a terrorist threat, after potentially contaminating more than $53,000 ($35,000 USD) worth of produce and other items by coughing on food in a “twisted prank” in northeastern Pennsylvania.
On Wednesday, Gerrity’s Supermarket posted on Facebook about a woman who is a “chronic problem in the community” and how she allegedly coughed all over its “fresh produce, and a small section of our bakery, meat case and grocery.”
“While there is little doubt this woman was doing it as a￼ very twisted prank, we will not take any chances with the health and well-being of our customers. We ￼had no choice but to throw out all product she came in contact with. Working closely with the Hanover Township health inspector, we identified every area that she was in, we disposed of the product and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected everything,” the store’s co-owner, Joe Fasula, wrote in the post.
Fasula estimates that the “total loss” is “well over $35,000 (USD),” and that the store is “checking to see if our insurance company will cover it, but even if they do, our rates will surely go up next year.”
The Hanover Township police department posted a press release on its Facebook page about the incident on Wednesday and updated it on Thursday, identifying the woman as Margaret Cirko.
“Police were called to the business after Cirko entered the store making verbal threats that she was sick while intentionally coughing and spitting saliva/bile on produce/meat/merchandise,” according to the release. “Cirko continued this behavior in several aisles before attempting to steal a 12-pack of beer as she was being ordered to leave the store by employees.”
Fasula in his post wrote, “I am also absolutely sick to my stomach about the loss of food. While it is always a shame when food is wasted, in these times when so many people are worried about the security of our food supply, it is even more disturbing.”
While it’s unclear if the woman has COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus responsible for killing more than 20,000 people worldwide, Fasula said that the district attorney’s office “will make every effort to see that she is tested.”
Fasula said the office also told him it “will be aggressively pursuing numerous charges.”
The woman has been charged with felony counts of terrorist threats, threats to use a “biological agent,” and criminal mischief, as well as misdemeanor counts criminal attempt to commit retail theft and disorderly conduct. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 8.
The police department said all updates on the incident will be shared in press releases on its Facebook page.
As for Fasula, he told HuffPost that he’s not looking for “justice” but that he hopes to deter people from doing this “anywhere, to any grocery store.” Since yesterday, Fasula said that his team has been “amazing” in the aftermath.
“Everybody was beside themselves and appalled. At first stunned at what was going on, but they all jumped in. They did everything they could to isolate the area and keep customers away from it,” he said.
Fasula added that employees went into work at 4 a.m. on Thursday morning to restock the shelves that were affected and that the general consensus has been that “they just can’t believe something like that happened.”
The U.S. Justice Department earlier this week sent a memo to federal law enforcement officials saying that they can prosecute certain coronavirus-related crimes as acts of terrorism.
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen’s memo said that “because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of ‘biological agent’ ... such acts potentially could implicate the Nation’s terrorism-related statutes.”
“Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” he said, adding that the crimes can range from “malicious hoaxes, to threats targeting specific individuals or the general public, to the purposeful exposure and infection of others with COVID-19.”
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