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Five days in prison for lying about moldy Mexican cheese

Miguel Leal wanted to bring the cheese of his Mexican homeland to American consumers.

But the Elmhurst business owner also imported a pair of less welcome cultures: salmonella and E. coli.

And on Friday, it cost him his freedom. A federal judge ordered Leal to serve five days behind bars for lying to FDA inspectors in 2007 about tainted, moldy, slimy Queso Cincho de Guerrero cheese that was “washed” and scraped and shipped across the U.S.

“I think he started out with a mistake,” U.S. District Judge James Zagel said, in issuing an unusually lenient sentence far below the 13-year maximum Leal had faced. “It turned out not to be a mistake but a crime.”

Immigrant Leal, of Monroe, Wis., rose from humble beginnings as a factory floor sweeper to become the self-made president and owner of Mexican Cheese Producers Inc., which had a facility in Elmhurst that distributed cheese to customers across the country.

But the company headed down a dangerous road in 2007 after retailers returned a batch of 35 to 40 pound tainted cheese wheels. Workers scraped and washed the cheese then re-sold it.

Though nobody got sick and there was not evidence that Leal ordered the scam, he admitted he lied to the FDA to cover it up.

“What he did was he lied to fend off doing wrong,” Zagel said. “I think he trusted people he shouldn’t have trusted.”

In all, more than 110,000 pounds of tainted Mexican cheese was shipped to his firm in 2007. A recall was issued in September 2007.

Also Friday, Leal’s financial manager Cynthia Gutierrez, of Cicero, received five years probation, while Baldamar Zurita, who worked for the company that imported the cheese from Mexico, received one year probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor.

Zagel also ordered Leal pay $750,000 in restitution, along with a year of probation.

Leal wiped away tears during the hearing as his attorney, Thomas Durkin, spoke of a man emotionally ripped by a case that has garnered international attention.

“This case has hung over him like an albatross for years,” Durkin said, noting Leal survived a suicide attempt and spent at least eight days in a psychiatric ward after his arrest.

Leal, a skeet-shooting enthusiast with hopes of competing in the Olympics, was also barred from owning a gun, and failed to open his own livery company because of his pending federal case, Durkin said.

Leal offered a public apology before his sentencing. “I deeply apologize and I ask for your mercy,” he said.