Date: Wed Jan 12 1994 11:44:32 P_SKEPTIC - NEW YORK (AP) - More than a few Americans seize

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Date: Wed Jan 12 1994 11:44:32 From: Pete Porro P_SKEPTIC ------------------------------- NEW YORK (AP) -- More than a few Americans seized on a report in early June of a syringe found in a can of Diet Pepsi and, with some tinkering, made it their own. When the hoax ballooned, each story seeming more farfetched as details of Pepsi's secure production lines were publicized, the federal Food and Drug Administration vowed to prosecute all the liars. The Associated Press wanted to know what had happened to the storytellers in the intervening seven weeks. Many had been questioned. But were they really being charged and prosecuted, or were they "getting off easy"? The Pepsi-Cola Co., on its toll-free consumer number, took hundreds of stories of soft drinks tainted with hypodermic syringes, sewing needles and screws. Not one has turned out to be true. Now, according to the FDA, at least 39 storytellers in 20 states could be in big trouble. That many people have been arrested, most for allegedly lying when they reported a consumer product had been tampered with. Eight have pleaded guilty, and seven more have trials or other court appearances this month. Lying about consumer product tampering, even to the maker of the product, is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and sentencing guidelines demand prison time. The first tampering allegation was reported June 10. The first arrest came just five days later. On July 9, Christopher J. Burnette, 25, of Williamsport, Pa., pleaded guilty to having put a used insulin syringe in a Diet Pepsi can. He said he'd been depressed. The task of sniffing out the hoax and crushing it fell largely to the FDA's barely opened Office of Criminal Investigations. The office, under director Terry Vermillion, broke into a run. The oldest investigative field office, open only since January, is in Kansas City, where special agent Larry Sperl is responsible for FDA criminal cases in 11 Southwestern states. It may be easier to build a tiny ship in a bottle than to pass a syringe through Pepsi's screened funnels that fill soda cans flying down plant production lines at 30 mph. James Robison, 19, of Portland, Ore., admitted putting a syringe in Diet Pepsi as a joke on his girlfriend's mother. His trial begins Sept. 7. John A. Sedwick, 45, of St. Petersburg, Fla., said he wanted attention when he dropped two screws into a can of caffeine-free Diet Coke. "It just doesn't pay to tamper with cans," he said in a public confession. James Ray Russell, 30, of West Hollywood, Calif., told investigators he put a syringe in a Pepsi can so he could sue the soft drink giant and give the money to homeless children. Vermillion sidestepped the question of how many people all told may be facing prosecution.

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