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Police warned: Be wary about what you eat

Officers should be on guard at fast-food restaurants, police say, after deputies are served burgers tainted with glass.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published July 12, 2003

TAMPA - It was 12:19 on Friday afternoon when Tampa police dispatchers beamed a message to the dozens of in-cruiser computers monitored by officers on the street.

"Just advised to let you guys know, be careful going through any drive-thru food joints in uniform," the message said.

It was an unusual piece of advice. Most every officer has grabbed a quick burger or soda during a busy shift.

A day earlier, two Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies did just that - and discovered glass shards in their cheeseburgers.

The deputies had been in uniform and on their dinner break at a 24-hour McDonald's at Nebraska and Fowler avenues, a popular eatery for city and county officers.

Deputy Stuart O'Shannon, 32, ate part of the burger and started coughing up blood. He was released from St. Joseph's Hospital early Friday morning. Deputy Daniel Witt, 24, was not injured.

Several incidents of the tampering of police officers' food have occurred around the country in recent years, but no other known cases have been reported in the Tampa Bay area.

Investigators call the glass-filled burgers "a criminal act" but are not saying whether the deputies were the targets.

They questioned all 17 people who were working at the restaurant and gave polygraph tests to three of them. No arrests had been made as of Friday night.

Fast food restaurants have long been officers' favorites - they are easy, cheap and some are open all night. Some give officers free meals.

They are most popular with the third-shift officers who bounce from burglaries, car crashes and domestic violence calls without a break.

"Sometimes, there are days you are so busy, that's all you can do," said Capt. Marion Lewis of the Tampa Police Department. "You can't afford to stop."

And the restaurant owners love having police stop by in their cruisers because it gives patrons an added sense of safety when they are parking, and dining.

But that added safety can contribute to another problem.

In 2002, a teenager gave rotten meat to a deputy in upstate New York. A 15-year-old in Ohio spit into an officer's Coca-Cola in 2001. Also that year, three officers sued a Denny's in Pennsylvania, claiming a cook ejaculated on their food. Other officers have reported finding sink sanitizer in their burgers.

The incidents have brought charges and lawsuits.

An upstate New York officer filed a $13.5-million lawsuit against Burger King, its franchisee and two of its employees after the employees allegedly tainted the officer's meat patty with urine, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Still, owners of the local McDonald's in Tampa say the glass incident is an isolated one.

"The most important thing to us is that Deputy O'Shannon is okay," said Bob Conigliaro, the vice president of community relations at Caspers, which owns 50 McDonald's restaurants in Hillsborough County. "We're confident that the investigative team is going to come to some resolution. We want to put this very isolated incident to rest."

According to the Sheriff's Office, the glass was tucked between a burger patty and a slice of cheese, mixed in with onions that resemble small pieces of glass.

Conigliaro said it is unclear whether the glass was placed on the burgers at the store or at the food supplier, where the reconstituted onions are packaged.

"It's a concern either way," he said.

Conigliaro said investigators seized other food products that were part of the same shipment as the contaminated burgers. He said there is no reason to be concerned other customers could be served similarly contaminated food.

Dr. Ferdinand Richards III, an emergency room doctor at Tampa General Hospital, said ingesting a small amount of glass generally isn't life threatening.

"If it's really small, it's probably not going to affect your intestinal tract," he said. "It might scratch and scrape."

Still, he said, there is a chance that glass could perforate the stomach or intestines, and lead to infection. It is difficult to locate a small piece of glass on an X-ray, and Richards said it is generally best to let the glass pass through a person's body.

"You don't go chasing it around," he said.

Many lunchtime customers who normally eat at the McDonald's on Fowler and Nebraska were discouraged by the glass-tainted sandwiches, but others were eager to grab a bite to eat.

Joe Navarro, 20, ordered a chicken sandwich and a cheeseburger. He compared the risk of biting into a burger to the chances of being struck by lightning on a golf course.

Sometimes, you have to take a risk, he said, even if the only reward is the satisfaction of a cheeseburger.

"Without any hesitation I tore right into it," Navarro said. "I'm fine."

But officers are cautious.

"I'm probably going to go where I can watch them fix my food," said Capt. Lewis. "You would hope that people wouldn't do these kinds of things. Unfortunately, in today's times, we have some evil people."

- Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Cory Schouten contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Tamara Lush can be reached at lush@sptimes.com or 813 226-3373.

[Last modified July 12, 2003, 02:03:26]


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