Two former managers of a Georgia peanut plant were sentenced to federal prison Thursday for their roles in a deadly salmonella outbreak, though the men received far less time behind bars than the ex-boss they helped convict.
A U.S. District Court judge in Albany, Georgia, sentenced Daniel Kilgore to six years in prison and gave Samuel Lightsey a three-year prison term. Both men at different times managed Peanut Corporation of America's southwest Georgia processing plant identified in 2009 as the source of salmonella ultimately blamed for killing nine people and sickening 714.
Kilgore and Lightsey would have faced decades in prison had they been convicted at trial. Instead, both pleaded guilty to charges that they knowingly shipped tainted food to customers and faked the results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.
"Mr. Kilgore and Mr. Lightsey acknowledged their wrongdoing," U.S. Attorney Michael Moore, whose office prosecuted the case in the Middle District of Georgia, said in statement. "And today their sentences reflect not only their acceptance of that responsibility, but also the requirement of accountability."
In a deal with prosecutors, the two ex-managers testified last year against their old boss, Peanut Corporation owner Stewart Parnell, who was convicted on 67 criminal counts. Last week, Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison — the stiffest penalty ever imposed on a U.S. producer in a food-borne illness case.
Lightsey oversaw day-to-day operations at Parnell's processing plant from the summer of 2008 until early 2009, when it was shut down after the salmonella outbreak triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Kilgore held the plant manager's job for six years before Lightsey was hired.
Investigators discovered the Georgia plant had a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents, all ingredients for brewing salmonella. They also uncovered emails and records showing food confirmed by lab tests to contain salmonella was shipped to customers anyway. Other batches were never tested at all, but got shipped with fake lab records stating that salmonella screenings turned out negative.
Prosecutors said chopped peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste tainted with salmonella were shipped to manufacturers who used them in products from snack crackers to pet food.
Before Parnell and two co-defendants were sentenced Sept. 21, both Lightsey and Kilgore offered apologies to victims' relatives who filled the courtroom.
"I'm sincerely sorry to all of you here and all the ones who are not here," Lightsey said.
Kilgore also apologized "for my part in any of this and for my actions, and for my lack of action."
Parnell's attorneys blamed the scheming on Lightsey and Kilgore. They argued Parnell, who ran the business from his home in Lynchburg, Virginia, was a poor manager who failed to keep up with his employees' actions.
Parnell's brother, food broker Michael Parnell, received 20 years in prison. Mary Wilkerson, the plant's quality control manager, got five years.
Peanut Corporation closed after declaring bankruptcy in 2009.
Three deaths linked to the outbreak occurred in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.