RALEIGH — Celiac disease patients trust the people who cook for them with their health.
Paul Seelig of Durham was a baker - sort of - who lied about seemingly everything, including recipes he said didn't contain gluten, a protein in common grains such as wheat that can cause the small intestine of those with celiac to stop absorbing nutrients and make them vulnerable to auto-immune diseases and cancer.
After a two-week trial, Seelig, 48, was found guilty Monday of more than 20 counts of obtaining property by false pretenses.
Zach Becker, who writes the blog Gluten Free Raleigh, was among several of Seelig's victims who attended the trial. He broke into a wide smile Monday as the verdicts were read.
"It's just a big win for the celiac community," Becker said later. "We have to rely on what restaurants and companies that sell food tell us about their products, and that trust is what this was about."
It was a rare legal victory for celiac sufferers, because the federal government hasn't yet settled on a standard for the meaning of "gluten-free," even though about one in 133 people in the country has the disease. It was inspiring, Becker said, that North Carolina's agriculture department and prosecutors were willing to push for justice in the case.
Seelig told customers of his company, Great Specialty Products, that his baked items were homemade. Instead, witnesses testified, he repackaged bread from a commercial baker in New Jersey and bagels bought from retailers such as Costco and resold them at the State Fair, street fairs and by home delivery.
He also sold a line of the baked goods as gluten-free. They weren't. Tests by amateurs and a professional lab showed high levels of gluten.
More than 20 of his customers complained that the products had made them sick, and one woman delivered herbaby prematurely, a possible result when celiac patients ingest gluten.
When the New Jersey bakery told him he had to stop reselling its products as gluten-free, Seelig replied with a letter on the stationery of a fictitious law firm, threatening legal action.
When state agriculture investigators responded to complaints from his customers, a shirtless Seelig met them at the door of his home, where he ran the business out of his kitchen. He claimed to be "Jeff Gleason," an employee of the company, and said that Paul Seelig had had a heart attack , had cancer and the flu and was in a hospital in California.
Seelig, a thin, balding man with past convictions for wire fraud in Montana and grand theft in California, was relaxed and chatty during much of his testimony Friday, often turning to address the members of the jury directly. He admitted lying about his identity, a move he called stupid. And he didn't challenge prosecutors when they said the 400-acre farm where the company supposedly raised its own ingredients didn't exist. But he couldn't quite bring himself to admit that the 150,000-square-foot commercial kitchen that he advertised was fictitious. He said he had been counting several cooking facilities, then that he had been counting all three floors of a bed and breakfast where he used the kitchen.
He also stuck to his story that he had been buying gluten-free bread from a mysterious Amish bakery in Ohio that - being Amish - had no telephone, email or address. There were no payment records, he said, because he paid in cash.
Seelig also claimed that he had rigorously tested his bread for gluten each week, though he couldn't produce test records.
In the end, the jurors decided that he had lied about the gluten-free bread, just as he had lied about so much more.
Seelig's sentencing is scheduled for this morning. He could face more than 15 years in prison.
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