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Environmental Crimes Bulletin February 2024 Week 2

In this issue:

United States v. Noel Quintana, et al., No. 1:21-CR-20245 (S.D. Fla.), ECS Senior Counsel Elinor Colbourn, former ECS Trial Attorney Erica Pencak, AUSA Katie Guthrie, ECS Paralegal Chloe Harris, and former ECS Law Clerk Nate Borrelli

On February 14, 2024, a court sentenced Noel Quintana, Kelsy Hernandez Quintana, and Marta Angelbello. The Quintanas were each ordered to serve 57 months’ incarceration, followed by three years’ supervised release. They are jointly and severally responsible for $42,417,318 in forfeitures, as well as $1,630,324 in storage costs incurred by the government when the Quintanas declined to abandon illegal wood seized by the government, thus forcing the government to maintain the wood in storage pending resolution of the case.

Both pleaded guilty to conspiracy, smuggling, and Lacey Act violations for utilizing multiple schemes to evade paying duties on hardwood plywood imported from China (18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 545; 16 U.S.C. §§ 3372(f)(1), 3373(d)(3)(A)(i)). Angelbello pleaded guilty to entry of goods by means of false statements (18 U.S.C. §542). She was sentenced to pay a $3,000 fine, complete a three-year term of probation, to include three months’ home detention, and perform 150 hours of community service.

The Quintanas incorporated seven companies in the United States – naming relatives or friends as corporate officers and agents – and used these shell companies to import hundreds of shipments of plywood products into the United States between February 2016 and December 2020. The Quintanas also incorporated a financial shell company, through which they accepted payments from purchasers for the plywood they illegally imported. For more than five years, the Quintanas and co-conspirators made false statements to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service personnel about the country of origin, country of harvest, genus, and species of plywood shipments they imported into the United States. Following the execution of a search warrant at the Quintanas’ place of business in January 2021, they fled to Montenegro. Officials extradited them to the United States in October 2022.

The total loss of duties owed on the illegally imported wood products was approximately $42 million. Experts estimated the plywood’s market value to be between $25 million and $65 million.

Homeland Security Investigations conducted the investigation, with assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Investigation Service.

United States v. Nicole D. Devilbiss, No. 3:23-CR-00153 (M.D. Fla.), AUSAs Ashley Washington and Elisibeth Adams

On February 14, 2024, Nicole D. Devilbiss pleaded guilty to conspiracy to create and distribute animal crush videos (18 U.S.C. § 371). Sentencing is scheduled for June 18, 2024.

Devilbiss administered an online group chat that was created for the purpose of funding, viewing, and distributing animal crush videos depicting the abuse, torture, and death of monkeys.

Devilbiss and co-conspirators funded the creation of animal crush videos by paying other co-conspirators outside of the United States to create the videos. Law enforcement retrieved numerous videos depicting the torture of monkeys from her residence during a search warrant.

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, and Homeland Security Investigations conducted the investigation.

United States v. Calvin Bautista, No. 8:22-CR-00308 (N.D.N.Y.), AUSA Alexander Paul Wentworth-Ping

On February 14, 2024, a court sentenced Calvin Bautista to complete a one-year term of probation and pay a $5,000 fine for smuggling three Burmese pythons into the United States (18 U.S.C. § 545).

On July 15, 2008, Bautista took a bus from Canada that arrived at the United States Port of Entry in Champlain, New York. When he presented his passport, it triggered an “armed and dangerous” alert (which was later determined to be a false positive). Due to the alert, inspectors patted Bautista down, detected several bulges in his groin area, and discovered the pythons. Upon questioning, Bautista claimed to be carrying three pet snakes inside his sweatpants. Customs and Border Protection agents seized the snakes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection conducted the investigation.

United States v. Daniel Brett, No. 2:24-CR-00037 (D. Utah), AUSA Ruth Hackford-Peer

asbestos building
Utah Historical Society

On February 14, 2024, prosecutors charged Daniel Brett with violations of the Clean Air Act (CAA) National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) and CAA knowing endangerment (42 U.S.C. §§ 7413(c)(1); (c)(4), (5)).

Brett was part owner of the Broadway Hotel, which was purchased as a redevelopment project. Brett and the co-owner knew the hotel, a 21,000 square foot structure built in 1909, contained asbestos in numerous locations, including in thermal system/boiler insulation, wall plaster, rolled vinyl flooring, and roofing materials. A third party provided the previous owner with an environmental assessment survey in 2011. The third party   advised the owner to conduct a comprehensive asbestos survey, but he failed to do so.

In July 2020, after the hotel caught fire, it could no longer be developed and had to be demolished. Brett and his co-owner solicited bids from potential demolition companies, choosing a proposal under which the owners would dispose of any asbestos containing material themselves. In December 2020, workers proceeded with the demolition without being provided proper equipment to protect them from the asbestos. After the company completed the demolition, Brett left the Broadway Hotel debris pile on site, where it remained uncovered for approximately fifteen months. Following the death of the co-owner in May 2021, Brett became fully responsible for the demolition. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiated an emergency clean-up operation in February 2022, removing approximately 3,330 tons of asbestos-containing debris at a cost to the agency of $1.1 million.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division conducted the investigation.

United States v. Bio-Edge, Inc., No. 3:24-CR-00242 (S.D. Cal.), AUSA Carl Brooker and Melanie Pierson

On February 15, 2024, Bio-Edge Inc., and company owners Robert and Filip Sulc, pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act for illegally discharging methanol-contaminated wastewater into a publicly owned treatment works (POTW) (33 U.S.C. §§ 317). Sentencing is scheduled for May 6, 2024.

Bio-Edge produced polymeric additives. The company used menthol as part of the manufacturing process and to clean glassware. In June 2023, Robert Sulc instructed Bio-Edge employees to treat the methanol-contaminated wastewater with salt to prevent drain clogs, dilute it with water, and dump the wastewater down the drain into the municipal sewage system.

Methanol is flammable, and federal permits prohibit discharging wastewater containing it into a POTW due to the risk of explosion.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division conducted the investigation.

United States v. Othel L. Pearson, No. 9:24-CR-00004 (D. Mont.), AUSA Randy Tanner

On February 15, 2024, Othel L. Pearson pleaded guilty to violations related to tampering with evidence derived from the shooting and killing of an endangered grizzly bear on his property (18 U.SC. § 1512(c)(1)); 16 U.S.C. § 1538(a)(1)(G)).

In November 2020, Pearson shot and killed a sow grizzly bear on his residential property using a .270 rifle. Pearson cut off a GPS collar that had been fitted to the bear and discarded the collar nearby in the Yaak River. Pearson also cut paws, ear tags, and an identifying lip tattoo from the bear carcass. Pearson then concealed the bear’s claws and an ear tag in a hollowed-out tree on National Forest System land near his residence. Pearson also failed to report the killing of the grizzly bear to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within five days as required.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement conducted the investigation.

United States v. Didion Milling, Inc., et al., No. 3:22-CR-00055 (W.D. Wisc.), ECS Trial Attorney Charlie Lord, ECS Senior Trial Attorney RJ Powers, ECS Trial Attorney Joel LaBissonniere, ECS Paralegals Chloe Harris and Jillian Grubb, and ECS Victim Witness Coordinator Angela Green

Between February 15, 2024, and February 16, 2024, a court sentenced six individuals employed by Didion Milling, Inc. (DMI), for their involvement in a catastrophic explosion that killed and wounded several DMI employees. Former Environmental Manager Joseph Winch was sentenced to two years’ incarceration, followed by two years of supervised release. Winch also will pay a $10,000 fine. Former Shift Superintendent Joel Niemeyer was sentenced to pay a $1,000 fine and complete a one-year term of probation. Supervisor Michael Bright was sentenced to complete a one-year term of probation. Vice President Shawn Mesner was ordered to serve 24 months’ incarceration, followed by one year of supervised release, and pay a $5,000 fine. Food Safety Superintendent Derrick Clark will also serve 24 months’ incarceration, followed by one year of supervised release. Shift Supervisor Anthony Hess was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and complete a one-year term of probation.

DMI owned and operated a corn mill in Cambria, Wisconsin. Corn dust is combustible and can fuel explosions if exposed to an ignition source and mixed with a sufficient concentration of air. Regulators required the company to operate “baghouses,” equipment designed to prevent particulate matter, such as corn dust, from being released into the environment from the corn mill. From at least 2015 to May 2017, DMI employees, including shift workers and shift superintendents, made false entries in the mill’s “baghouse logs,” disguising data meant to monitor and document whether the mill’s baghouse equipment was working properly to filter particulates from the air. DMI environmental manager provided baghouse logs for 2015, 2016, and 2017 to environmental inspectors, knowing that they contained false entries.

The company was also required under Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) safety standards to develop and implement a housekeeping program to reduce the accumulation of fugitive grain dust within its corn mill. DMI maintained a “master sanitation schedule” logbook listing each of the required dust cleanings and the specific dates by which the cleanings were supposed to be completed. The sanitation logbook contained spaces for employees to record that the dust cleanings had been performed and that documentations procedures had been followed.

On May 19, 2017, employees falsely initialed, signed, and dated entries in the sanitation logbook for the week of May 1 through May 7, 2017, giving the appearance that the required dust cleanings were performed when they had not been. The company provided the sanitation logbook containing the false May 2017 dust cleaning entries to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during its investigation of the explosion.

A court sentenced DMI on January 25, 2024, to pay a $1,000,000 fine, complete a five-year term of probation, and pay $10,250,00 in restitution. The company pleaded guilty to falsifying OSHA and EPA records (18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(3)).

A jury convicted Mesner and Clark in October 2023 for their role in a catastrophic explosion in May 2017 at the DMI corn milling facility in Cambria, Wisconsin, that killed five employees and wounded others. Specifically, Mesner was convicted of a fraud conspiracy and conspiracy to commit federal offenses (18 U.S.C §§ 1349, 371). Clark was convicted of conspiracy to commit federal offenses, document falsification in contemplation of a federal investigation, false entries in a record within the U.S. EPA jurisdiction, and obstruction of an agency proceeding (18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 1519, 1001 (a)(3), 1505). Niemeyer and Winch pleaded guilty to conspiring to falsifying documents in matters under the jurisdiction of OSHA and EPA (18 U.S.C. § 371). Hess pleaded guilty to obstructing an OSHA proceeding by making false statements to OSHA and the Department of Labor (18 U.S.C. § 1505). Bright and Booker pleaded guilty to making false statements (18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(3)).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conducted the investigation.

Updated April 2, 2024