Farmers Eric and Ryan Jensen sentenced in deadly listeria outbreak linked to their cantaloupes

Home detention, probation, but no jail time

DENVER - Two Colorado farmers, whose listeria-tainted cantaloupe killed nearly three dozen people, will not spend any time in jail.

A federal magistrate sentenced Eric and Ryan Jensen to 5 years of probation, with the first six months in home detention. Each defendant was also sentenced to 100 hours of community service and was each ordered to pay $150,000 restitution. That money will go to the victims.

In addition to probation and restitution, Ryan Jensen was told he cannot possess a gun, commit any other crimes or use alcohol or marijuana. He must attend a substance abuse program and take drug tests.

Eric Jensen agreed to provide a DNA sample as part of his probation.

Both will have to start their home detention within 21 days.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty called it an unusual, heart-rending case.

He said, "No facts suggest the Jensens had any prior knowledge or knew the cantaloupe was tainted, or that they were trying to cut corners."

The sentence drew mixed reaction from the victims' families. Some wanted to see a jail sentence, others did not.

"They could have gotten six years on each count," said Penny Hauser, while holding a picture of her late husband, Michael. "I would like to have seen it. Anything would have been better."

But Jeni Exley, whose father, Herb Stevens, also died from eating the tainted cantaloupe, said her family asked that the Jensens only get probation.

"I actually went up after the case was over and shook both Ryan and Eric Jensen's hands," she said. "I think they're honorable men. I just think they didn't make some wise decisions."

The Jensens purchased a used potato washer to clean the cantaloupe grown on their farm. The potato washer included a chlorine sprayer, but it was not hooked up or used in the process.

Last October, the Jensen brothers pleaded guilty to six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.

During their sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court, both apologized for what happened.

"This has been a huge tragedy," Eric Jensen said. "We are very, very sorry. We hope it leads to… a better understanding of food safety."

Ryan Jensen told the court, "My most sincere apologies and deepest regrets."

He said he hoped the meeting between him and his brother and the victims' families helped.

Not all of the victims' families were able to attend the earlier meeting with the Jensen brothers.

"I couldn't make it," said Paul Schwarz. "I had a doctor's appointment."

Schwarz said his father suffered after being sickened by the cantaloupe.

"He went through a horrible death," Schwarz said. "He had to be fed and bathed."

Schwarz addressed the Jensens during the sentencing hearing.

"I said, 'What were you thinking?' They disregarded safety things as far as the chlorine-based wash… and listeria was found in different parts.”

Schwarz said he doesn't agree with the judge's sentence, but he accepts it.

Hauser said she is glad the case has been resolved.

"I am glad we're moving forward," she told 7NEWS. "And other people need to come to the table to pay for what happened. Michael's bills were close to $2 million."

The Jensens sued Primus Labs, which was hired to conduct a food safety audit of their cantaloupe operation.

Primus apparently hired a subcontractor who gave the operation a passing grade.

The victims' families also want to hold the retailers who sold the cantaloupe liable.

Prosecutors say the listeria outbreak, which began in May 2011, was initially estimated to have caused 33 deaths and sickened 147 people in 28 states. During the court hearing Tuesday, the prosecutor said there were closer to 40 deaths.

Hauser said she's glad to hear the Jensens take responsibility and finally apologize. She's angry that it took so long.

"What would it have taken for their lawyers to write a letter?" she said. "Maybe that would have helped at the beginning, with the trauma we were going through."

She said it could have happened to anybody and added that she felt some responsibility for the death of her husband.

"I bought (the cantaloupe.) I cut it up and I fed it to him," she said. "Now, I have to live with those consequences."

"I can empathize with the Jensens," Jim Weatherred said in court. "My dad didn't want them to go to jail or pay fines, but I do think they should pay restitution."

U.S. Attorney John Walsh said, "No sentence of incarceration, restitution or financial penalty can undo the tragic damage done as a result of the contamination at Jensen Farms.  Today's sentence serves as a powerful reminder of farmers' legal and moral responsibility for ensuring their product is safe."

Walsh said that because of this case, changes have been made regarding how fruit is processed and transported across the country.

He said, "The prosecution recommended probation in this case because of the defendants' unique cooperation, including their willingness to meet with Congress and their willingness to meet with and be confronted by the victims of their misconduct."

Acting Special Agent Spencer Morrison of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigation said, "We sincerely hope that today's sentencing will provide some small measure of justice to the victims of this awful tragedy. FDA will continue to appropriately utilize its resources to ensure the integrity of our nation's food supply."

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