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Illinois man accused of inserting needles into store's packaged meat 'just for the hell of it'

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EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. - A 68-year-old Illinois man was jailed without bond Thursday after being accused by federal prosecutors of inserting sewing needles into packaged meat "just for the hell of it" at a grocery store in his hometown at least seven times over more than a year.

The criminal complaint filed Wednesday against Ronald Avers said one buyer of boneless chuck roast at the Shop 'n Save store in Belleville just east of St. Louis later bit into one of the needles, and a needle slipped into a steak stuck another customer.

SuperValu Inc., the Minnesota-based corporate parent of the Shop 'n Save chain, stressed that none of the cases resulted in serious injury, and that the alleged tampering was isolated to only the meat section of one store.

"With every customer that brought it to our attention, none reported needing medical attention as a result of the tampering," said Jeff Swanson, a SuperValu spokesman. "We have no reason to believe any tampering occurred outside of that one store."

Avery, who made a brief court appearance Thursday on the seven tampering counts each punishable by up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine, was ordered jailed pending a scheduled detention hearing Monday.

A message left Thursday with Avers' federal public defender was not immediately returned.

FBI Special Agent Daniel Cook, in an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint, wrote that Shop 'n Save alerted him July 9 of the tampering, which dated to May of last year, when a customer first reported finding a needle in a package of ground beef. Roughly four months later, Cook wrote, a store employee found a needle sticking out of a package of pork chops. Customers later reported finding needles in everything from ground beef to roasts and steaks.

Using its surveillance camera footage, Cook wrote, the Shop 'n Save's security crew identified a suspect seen manipulating meat items he never ended up buying and alerted Cook on Tuesday when that man again entered the store, riding a motorized scooter and using a portable oxygen tank.

After buying various items, Cook said, the man was approached by investigators outside the store and allowed them to search his truck, where an open package of sewing needles was found in a centre console. Identifying himself as Ronald Avers, Cook wrote, the man insisted he kept the needles on hand to mend pants he tore while camping, then gradually acknowledged he used the needles more inappropriately.

"'Every now and then I would stick one in a hamburger,'" Cook quoted Avers as saying before the man expounded, "'Mostly hamburger, a couple of times I did it with a roast, maybe a pork chop every now and then.'"

Avers insisted he had no justification for such tampering, calling it a "stupid idea," Cook wrote.

"Avers said during the interview two times he inserted sewing needles into packaged meat products, 'just for the hell of it.'" the FBI agent wrote, adding that Avers continued: "It was stupidity. I didn't want to hurt nobody."

Online court records show that Avers has a history of traffic offences but no previous criminal background.

Swanson, the SuperValu spokesman, said any customer who bought fresh meat from the store before July 12 can get a refund or exchange it.

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