A Utah extermination company and one of its former employees pleaded guilty Tuesday to reduced federal charges stemming from the misapplication of a pesticide that may have contributed to the deaths of two young girls.
Bugman Pest and Lawn Inc. and Coleman Nocks entered pleas to one count each of unlawful use of a registered pesticide, a class A misdemeanor, in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court. Company President Raymond Wilson entered the plea on behalf of Bugman.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors are dropping two additional counts of the same charge.
Prosecutors also agreed to recommend Nocks spend six months in prison and six months on home confinement, followed by one year of probation. The punishment recommendation for Bugman is a $3,000 fine and 36 months of probation _ which effectively shuts down the company.
Sentencing was set for Dec. 20 before U.S. District Judge Dee Benson, who does not have to agree to the recommendations.
Nocks, 64, declined to comment after Tuesday's hearing.
"We just feel sorry for what happened to the Toone family," Wilson said following the hearing. "The plea offer, we hope helps them put this behind them so they can move forward."
In a court statement filed as part of the plea, Bugman and Nocks acknowledge that the poison Fumitoxin was misapplied at the Toone residence in Layton in February 2010, likely causing the deaths of 4-year-old Rebecca and her 15-month-old sister, Rachel. The chemical is an aluminum phosphide that is commonly formulated as pellets or tablets.
The statement says Nocks' mistakes included applying the chemical into a burrow system that was less than 15 feet from the house in amounts greater than recommended on the pesticide's label. It also says Nocks should not have used the chemical when temperatures were below 41 degrees, and he failed to leave the family with safety information.
Investigators discovered that toxic gas seeped inside the Toone home, sickening the family, including Rebecca and Rachel, their parents and two siblings.
The Utah medical examiner's office said the Toone sisters had elevated levels of phosphorous and lung damage "consistent with inhaling a harmful substance," according to information from Layton police.
Two months after the Toone sisters' deaths, the Environmental Protection Agency expanded its restrictions on the use of aluminum and magnesium phosphide products, including Fumitoxin, because the toxic gases they release had been associated with accidental poisoning incidents.
The restrictions ban the use of the chemicals in residential areas, including single and multi-family homes, nursing homes, schools, day care facilities and hospitals, an EPA news release states.
Rebecca and Rachel's parents, Brenda and Nathan Toone, attended Tuesday's hearing but declined to comment. In a telephone call, their attorney, Pete Summerill, said the family wants to wait until after Nocks and Bugman are sentenced before speaking publicly.
The family filed a wrongful death suit against Bugman and Nocks in March, alleging they were negligent and responsible for the girls' deaths.
On Tuesday, Bugman attorney Dennis James said a settlement had been reached in the case but the terms won't be made public.
Davis County prosecutors charged Nocks with two counts of misdemeanor negligent homicide in state court but later dropped their case because of the federal indictment.
The state fined Bugman Pest and seven of its employees more than $46,000 in August 2010 after an investigation into the girls' deaths. Bugman was placed on two years' probation, which requires submitting to a records audit by the state agriculture department. Each employee also must attend 18 hours of pesticide applicator training.
Nocks voluntarily surrendered his applicator license and agreed never to reapply for license. He was not fined.
Jennifer Dobner can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/JenniferDobner