January 21, 2017 9:22:50 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
Columbus Police Department has issued an arrest warrant for a local woman in connection to an alleged Jan. 7 food contamination incident at Jack's Restaurant.
According to CPD Public Information Officer Joe Dillon, police are seeking Sky Juliett Samuel, 18, and expect to charge her under Mississippi Code of 2013, which states that a person who "shall knowingly sell unwholesome bread or drink" is guilty of a felony and subject to a prison term of one to five years upon conviction.
Samuel, who was working at the restaurant on Highway 45 the night of the incident, is accused of putting her bodily fluids on a food order that was delivered to a customer.
By press time, police had not arrested the suspect.
CPD issued the arrest warrant Friday evening and the Birmingham, Alabama-based Jack's Family Restaurants, Inc., released a statement acknowledging it shortly thereafter.
"Jack's fully supports the police department's efforts to determine if there was any wrongdoing in this case," the statement reads. "The company has cooperated fully with this investigation and will continue to do so."
The statement said Jack's is continuing its internal investigation and that it has also hired a third-party investigator.
"As part of our internal investigation, we have reviewed several hours of restaurant surveillance footage and interviewed all employees working during the shift in question," the statement continued. "Both of these investigations are still ongoing."
The incident first came to light when a Jack's employee shared details of the alleged incident with her mother, Tabatha Hollins of New Hope. The teen told her mother she witnessed another employee put menstrual fluid and saliva on a food order before it was delivered to the customer at the drive-through window between 10 and 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 7.
Two days later, the mother said her daughter was fired as she attempted to share more information on the incident with her employers. Hollins said she was told she was fired because her family made a false complaint.
Jack's CEO Todd Bartmass said on June 11 that the teen who made the charge was terminated for reasons unrelated to the alleged incident.
Hollins then posted her daughter's account of the incident on her Facebook page, where it drew 129,000 views, more than 3,500 shares and more than 3,000 comments. The post also included a recording of a cellphone conversation Hollins said her daughter had with Samuel the day after the incident.
The post drew the attention of the company and the Mississippi Department of Health, both of which started investigations.
"Our investigator did a thorough investigation of the restaurant and talked to restaurant management about their policies and procedures," Health Department communications director Liz Sharlot told The Dispatch. "We have determined that the restaurant is perfectly safe for people to eat there. Our job is to make sure the restaurant is following proper procedures and policies. Jack's has a very good reputation, and we're satisfied it is meeting all standards for safety."
Jack's Restaurant in Columbus currently has a grade of A from the Mississippi Department of Health.
CPD began its investigation on Jan. 13 after the alleged victim, identified only as a woman from Tupelo, filed a criminal complaint with the department.
Hollins said a CPD investigators interviewed her daughter on Jan. 14.
"They talked to her, and also took her phone to retrieve the recording and texts between my daughter and Sky," Hollins said.
Hollins said a private investigator working on behalf of Jack's asked to interview her daughter, but the family declined the request on advice of their attorney.
Saturday, Jack's spokesman Miguel Piedra said the employment status of four employees has been affected in the wake of the incident.
"There were five employees working on the night of the alleged incident," Piedra said. "Sky and one other employee were terminated for violating company policies that were unrelated to any allegations of food tampering. Two other employees who were working during the shift in question have been placed on leave pending the outcome of this investigation."
Piedra said all of the restaurant's surveillance footage was turned over to CPD investigators.
"The restaurant has video surveillance cameras at various locations throughout the dining and kitchen areas, including sections of the food preparation area,' Piedra said. "The surveillance tapes from all of the restaurant's cameras have been turned over to law enforcement."
Dillon, in the city's press release, praised the company's cooperation.
"It is important that the public knows that everyone from Jack's has been totally cooperative with investigators from the Columbus Police Department during the gather of facts," Dillon said. "Jack's is a valuable member of our business community and we hope this can begin to rebuild trust in the restaurant."
Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call Golden Triangle Crime Stoppers at (800) 530-7151.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]