Bread made dozens ill, jury is told

Staff WriterMarch 30, 2011 

Editor's note: A story on Tuesday about Paul Seelig's fraud trial at the Wake County courthouse misstated what the defendant sold at the weekend flea markets at the state fairgrounds.

A Durham man repeatedly lied to customers about the ingredients in his bread - a ploy that made more than two dozen people with food allergies sick, a Wake County prosecutor told jurors on Tuesday.

Paul Seelig, owner of Great Specialty Products, is on trial for fraud. He sold what he claimed was gluten-free bread at the N.C. State Fair.

But prosecutors say Seelig's bread tested positive for gluten and caused illness among customers who suffer from celiac disease and gluten intolerance.

"What this case is about is misrepresentations built on top of misrepresentations that this defendant made to people with medical conditions," Assistant District Attorney Shawn Evans said Tuesday during opening arguments in the trial. "The consequence was that many people got sick."

Among the misrepresentations Seelig made, according to prosecutors: He made his own gluten-free bread; he owned a dedicated gluten-free facility; he was testing his products weekly to prove they were gluten-free.

Defense lawyer Blake Norman of Durham painted Seelig as a businessman who was trying to fill a niche for consumers who suffer from intestinal diseases.

Seelig suffers from Crohn's disease and cannot eat gluten, a protein that gives bread its airy structure and chewy texture. Norman said Seelig was trying to provide a service by selling reasonably priced gluten-free products.

When customers started complaining about getting sick, Norman explained that his client was skeptical because neither he nor his relatives - who also cannot eat gluten - were becoming ill. Norman said Seelig was lied to by his bread supplier.

"Paul also is a victim in this case," Norman said. "He believed his supplier."

Norman assured victims that he would prove Seelig never intended to deceive his customers.

A high-risk move

Norman also told jurors that Seelig would take the stand to tell his side of the story.

By testifying, Seelig opens himself up to being questioned by prosecutors about his prior criminal convictions.

In 1991, Seelig went to prison for more than two years for grand theft, according to California prison records. In 2002, federal court records show, Seelig was convicted of wire fraud and sentenced to four months in prison followed by three years of federal probation.

If convicted of all the charges in the Wake County cases, Seelig, 48, faces at least eight years in prison if sentenced to consecutive terms.

On the other side

Seelig faces more than two dozen fraud charges for taking customers' money under false pretenses. Prosecutors plan to call almost 50 witnesses.

Evans, the prosecutor, told jurors those would include two dozen customers who became ill after eating Seelig's products and experts from the University of Nebraska who tested the bread.

Evans said a former employee would testify that Seelig told her to lie to investigators about their operation and that she and other employees were sent during the State Fair to buy regular bagels at Costco and B.J.'s that were sold as gluten-free.

Testimony from Seelig's customers continues today.

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

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