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Exterminators plead 'not guilty' in pesticide deaths

Published February 25, 2011 2:49 pm

Court • Two girls died last year after Fumitoxin was applied at their home.
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A pest exterminator and his former employer pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges of misapplying a deadly poison blamed for killing two Layton girls last year.

Coleman Nocks, 63, and Bugman Pest and Lawn owner Ray Wilson Sr. entered their pleas during their first appearance in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City on three counts of unlawful use of a registered pesticide.

Magistrate Judge Samuel Alba presided. He set trial for May 2 before Judge Dee Benson.

Nocks was working for Bugman Feb. 5, 2010, when he applied a pesticide called Fumitoxin at the home where 4-year-old Rebecca Toone and her 15-month-old sister, Rachel, lived. The girls, their brother, their sister and their father all became very ill that weekend. Within three days, Rebecca and Rachel had died.

Prosecutors have said the girls' injuries could be traced to breathing fumes that seeped into the home after Nocks placed aluminum phosphide tablets into rodent burrows outside to get rid of field mice.

Nocks' and Wilson's company are charged with using too much Fumitoxin and putting it too close to the Toone home and, on two other occasions in the preceding six months, at homes in Centerville and North Salt Lake.

The charges are class A misdemeanors. Nocks faces up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine on each count, although the fine could be as high as $250,000 on the offense involving the girls, if it is shown during sentencing that the offense "resulted in a substantial likelihood of death or serious bodily injury."

The company could face a fine of $200,000 on each count if convicted for its role. For the case involving the Toone home, the penalty could be raised to $500,000.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Bennett told reporters that Nocks and Bugman are accused of misusing a restricted pesticide. Failing to follow the detailed directions on the pesticide's label is a violation of the law, he explained.

In the courtroom, the prosecutor gave attorneys for both Nocks and Bugman 12 discs containing key evidence.

Nocks' defense attorney Bob Steele noted his client is charged with a "regulatory crime" not criminal charges like those originally filed by Layton city prosecutors and dropped earlier this month once the federal charges were filed. He added that his client struggled at first with a "great deal of emotional turmoil over the girls' death, especially since he lost a son of his own years ago."

"This brings up a lot for him," Steele said.

Bugman's attorney Dennis James said his client would not rule out a plea deal, although they will be prepared to fight the charges at trial.

"Bugman has a long history of strict adherence to safety policies and procedures," said James, "a long history of in-house training requirements and licensing compliance and a long history of enforcement and discipline."

The company and seven employees agreed in August to pay $46,800 in fines to settle administrative charges brought by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food in connection with more than 3,500 instances when the company and its crew allegedly broke state pesticide laws between April 2009 and February 2010. Although many of the alleged violations involved paperwork, others represented the misuse of dangerous pesticides, including Fumitoxin.

Nocks was not part of that case because of the Layton criminal charges. But he did surrender his state pesticide license and agreed not to reapply for one.

Wilson let his attorney do most of the talking when they encountered reporters outside the courthouse Friday morning. But he did say, "It's been a long year, very tough."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of Fumitoxin in residential areas a few weeks after the Toone girls died. —

Pesticide deaths

What happened? • An extermination company and one if its technicians pleaded "not guilty" Friday to federal charges that they misused pesticides on three occasions. Two girls died after Coleman Nocks, working for Bugman Pest and Lawn, used a deadly rodent killer outside the girls' Layton home.

What's next? • Nocks and Bugman are set to stand trial May 2. The company could be fined as much as $1 million. The former employee faces up to three years in prison and fines as high as $350,000.