Authorities: Shop owner mislabeled food

By Joe Beck

Store owner Rodney L. Cole Sparks’ path back to the Warren County Jail began Aug. 22 when a pair of state food safety officials appeared at his store, according to a criminal complaint filed in general district court.

The complaint states the officials, enforcement officer F.C. Lamneck and enforcement manager Thomas Hall of the Office of Meat and Poultry Services, told Sparks they had come to inspect the meat and poultry products he was offering for sale at his store at 654 W. 11th St., Front Royal.

Sparks ran afoul of state laws governing the safety of food products earlier this year when he was placed on two years of unsupervised probation and ordered to pay a $2,500 fine after entering an Alford plea of guilty to 10 counts of selling tainted meat.

An Alford plea constitutes an admission by a defendant that the prosecution has enough evidence to persuade a jury to convict him, although the defendant continues to maintain his innocence.

Court documents from the case said Sparks obtained “putrid” meat from a Food Lion Dumpster in Berryville. In an interview, Sparks admitted taking meat from the Food Lion Dumpster but insisted he used it only to feed 50 to 75 cats at his home.

Sparks was arrested and jailed for the second time in less than a year Monday and faced four new misdemeanor counts against him in an appearance Tuesday in Warren County General District Court. The charges are two counts of failing to keep records that fully disclose all transactions at the store and two counts of offering misbranded meat items for sale.

Warren County General District Judge W. Dale Houff ordered Sparks to continue to be held without bond in the jail.

Sparks, 55, of Monrovia, Md., appeared in court in his jail uniform. He said he was still trying to find a lawyer and asked Houff to release him on bail. He cited his ownership of the store in arguing for a low bail.

“I don’t feel I’m a flight risk for one reason,” Sparks told Houff. “I own property in Front Royal, free and clear.”

Houff cited Sparks’ residency in Maryland as one reason for keeping him in jail.

“You’re not a resident of Virginia,” Houff said. “I just don’t feel comfortable setting you free on bail.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden called the charges similar to those filed against Sparks in the earlier case.

The latest criminal complaint against Sparks, signed by Lamneck, states that he and Hall noticed several self-serve freezers in which Sparks was offering packages of meat and poultry for sale.

The freezer items included what Lamneck’s complaint described as “one package of unidentifiable smoked sausage.”

The product carried an illegible label with an inked handwritten price of $1.50, according to the complaint.

Another meat item had a vaguely worded label and lacked a safe handling label, “but bore an Australia inspection mark 553,” according to the complaint.

The complaint states the inspection grew contentious when Lamneck asked Sparks for specific invoices of a Food Lion product that carried specific dates on it.

The complaint states: “Sparks went into a cabinet next to the freezers and grabbed two large envelopes that he said contained all the business transactions of his store and threw it down by Lamneck. Lamneck again asked Sparks if these receipts would show specific dates from Food Lion and other retail store labels containing meat and poultry. Sparks said, ‘you look for them.'”

Sparks also gave Lamneck and Hall another set of receipts but cut off the bottom with a pair of scissors and told Hall, “you’re not getting my account numbers,” according to the complaint.

“Lamneck and Hall made copies of the cash register retail sales receipts and researched the receipts, but could not match the dates to specific meat items being offered for sale by Sparks,” the complaint states.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com