Change-of-plea hearing set in Utah pesticide case

October 11, 2011 - 11:40 AM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Federal prosecutors say a change-of-plea hearing is set for a pest extermination company and one of its former employees suspected in the misapplication of a pesticide that may have contributed to the deaths of two young Utah girls.

Bugman Pest and Lawn Inc., and Coleman Nocks are set to appear Tuesday in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court. Nocks and the company's president, Ray Wilson, each pleaded not guilty to three counts of unlawful use of a registered pesticide earlier this year.

Prosecutors would not discuss the terms of the proposed plea agreements ahead of the hearing.

Dennis James, an attorney representing the company, said Monday he could not discuss the details of any agreement. Nock's federal public defender, Robert Steele, did not return a message.

Prosecutors contend that in February 2010, Nocks disregarded the directions on the label of the rodent-killing poison Fumitoxin and applied the chemical too close to a Layton home. He and the company also failed to provide safety information about the pesticide to residents, authorities said.

Investigators say they found toxic gas seeped inside, likely causing the deaths 4-year-old Rebecca Toone and her 15-month-old sister, Rachel. The girls' parents and their two siblings also were sickened.

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.

If convicted as originally charged, Nocks, 64, faces up to one year in federal prison and a $100,000 fine on each of the misdemeanor counts. The Bountiful-based Bugman Pest faces a fine of up to $500,000 if the court decides the alleged mishandling of pesticides resulted in death.

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.

The Toone family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in March. It names Bugman, Wilson and Nocks, and seeks unspecified punitive damages.