A former co-owner of a Petaluma slaughterhouse pleaded guilty Friday in U.S. District Court to participating in what prosecutors say was a scheme to distribute meat taken from diseased cows afflicted with eye cancer.
Robert W. Singleton, 77, one of two former owners of Rancho Feeding Corp., also signed a cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors that requires his testimony against three co-defendants at a future trial.
“He decided it was the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances,” said his lawyer, Pamela Davis. “He felt remorseful for his conduct and any harm to the community he may have caused.”
In exchange, prosecutors will file a motion with U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer asking for a reduction in Singleton’s maximum three-year prison sentence.
However, the judge is not obligated to grant his request for leniency. Singleton also faces a $10,000 fine.
Along with his former partner, Jesse “Babe” Amaral Jr., and two Rancho employees, Singleton is accused of circumventing U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection procedures and processing the meat from diseased animals in violation of federal law.
An 11-count indictment returned last week named Amaral, 76, of Petaluma; Rancho foreman Felix Cabrera, 55, of Santa Rosa; and Eugene Corda, 65, of Petaluma, who was the facility’s main yard worker, responsible for receiving cattle and moving them for inspection and slaughter. Singleton was charged in a separate filing.
Amaral, Cabrera and Corda are charged with conspiracy to distribute 180 diseased or condemned cattle from January 2013 to January 2014. The indictment alleges mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud, which are punishable by 20 years in federal prison.
Cabrera pleaded not guilty to all charges Friday. Amaral and Corda pleaded not guilty Monday.
Prosecutors said the men slaughtered and sold meat from cows with “cancer eye,” meaning they had lumps or abnormalities around the eye. They bypassed USDA inspectors by cutting the heads off the diseased cows, disposing of them in a “gut bin” and placing heads from healthy cows next to the tainted carcasses.
Also, Rancho employees are accused of cutting off inspectors’ “condemned” stamps and processing adulterated cattle for shipping and transport.
The allegations followed an eight-month federal investigation that came after a massive meat recall at the plant on Petaluma Boulevard North. The slaughterhouse closed in February after recalling 8.7 million pounds of its beef and veal sold in the United States and Canada.
Roughly 44,000 retail establishments were involved in the recall, a USDA official told local farmers. The action also caused considerable financial harm to North Bay ranchers who had used the plant for the custom slaughter of their grass-fed cattle and were ordered to dispose of any remaining meat.
In Singleton’s plea agreement, he admits being part of an alleged scheme to defraud customers and consumers over a 12-month period ending this year.
It alleges Singleton knew Amaral instructed Cabrera to process condemned animals and that Cabrera instructed another employee to carve out condemned stamps. It also alleges Singleton knew Amaral instructed Corda to swap cattle with symptoms of eye cancer for those that passed live inspection.
The switch occurred during inspectors’ lunch breaks. Singleton said he believed the inspectors did not know it was happening.
As part of the alleged scheme, Rancho paid Cabrera $50 for each condemned carcass or uninspected cow that Rancho distributed, according to the plea agreement.
Cabrera’s lawyer, Edward Hu, declined to discuss the allegations Friday.
Also, Singleton agreed Rancho mailed fraudulent invoices to farmers from 2012 to January, saying their cattle had died or failed inspection when the animals had actually been sold for human consumption. Such invoices were mailed for 17 cattle during the final 12 months, the agreement said.
Singleton also agreed to pay restitution and testify truthfully at any trial.
As part of the agreement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office promised not to add charges. And it said it would recommend a “downward departure” of the recommended punishment at Singleton’s sentencing hearing, expected to take place in November.
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.