ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — They were star witnesses who helped convict their old boss, a former peanut executive who got the harshest sentence ever for a U.S. producer in a food-borne illness case. Now two ex-managers of a Georgia peanut plant at the center of a deadly salmonella outbreak face the prospect of going to prison themselves.
Sammy Lightsey and Danny Kilgore were scheduled to return Thursday to U.S. District Court for sentencing by the same judge who sent their ex-employer, former Peanut Corporation of American owner Stewart Parnell, to prison for 28 years.
Lightsey oversaw day-to-day operations at Parnell's processing plan in rural Blakely, Georgia, when investigators arrived in early 2009 searching for the source of salmonella ultimately blamed for killing nine Americans and sickening 714. Kilgore held the plant manager's job for six years before Lightsey was hired in the summer of 2008.
Both men pleaded guilty when criminal charges were filed in connection with the salmonella outbreak, which triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. They cut deals with prosecutors to testify against Parnell, 61, and two co-defendants in exchange for a lighter sentence.
"I'm sincerely sorry to all of you here and all the ones who are not here," Lightsey said as he spoke briefly to the judge and victims' families gathered in the courtroom for Parnell's sentencing Monday.
Kilgore also offered a courtroom apology "for my part in any of this and for my actions, and for my lack of action."
Court records show prosecutors have recommended a maximum of 12 years in prison for Kilgore after he pleaded guilty to 30 criminal counts in February 2013. Lightsey's deal was for up to six years in prison after he pleaded guilty to seven counts in May 2014, barely two months before the case went to trial.
Both men could have faced decades in prison had they been convicted by a jury.
"I'm still very angry about what they did, but I think they should get a break because they helped the case," said Jeff Almer, whose mother, 72-year-old Shirley Mae Almer of Perham, Minnesota, became ill from salmonella and died in December 2008 after eating peanut butter from Parnell's plant.
"It's hard to quantify the motive behind their helping," Almer said. "Did they do it to save their own hides? Or did they do it out of a sense of obligation?"
Federal investigators who traced the outbreak to the Georgia plant in 2009 found a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents at the plant, all ingredients for brewing salmonella. They also uncovered emails and records showing food confirmed by lab tests to contain salmonella was shipped to customers anyway. Other batches were never tested at all, but got shipped with fake lab records stating that salmonella screenings turned out negative.
Lightsey and Kilgore spent several days on the witness stand at Parnell's trial last year, reviewing documents for the jury and fessing up to their own actions that allowed salmonella-tainted peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste to be shipped to customers who used them in products from snack crackers to pet food.
Parnell's attorneys blamed the scheming on Lightsey and Kilgore. They argued Parnell, who ran the business from his home in Virginia, was a poor manager who failed to keep up with his employees' actions.
Parnell's brother, food broker Michael Parnell, also was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison. Mary Wilkerson, the plant's quality control manager, got five years.
Peanut Corporation closed after declaring bankruptcy in 2009.
Three deaths linked to the outbreak occurred in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.