Mums found metal shards in Tesco baby food in £1.5m blackmail plot

Two mums found shards of metal in baby food as they were about to feed their children planted as part of a blackmail campaign against Tesco, a court has heard.

Nigel Wright, 45, has been charged with contaminating jars of baby food and threatening to taint tins of fruit in a £1.5 million blackmail plot in which he demanded to be paid in Bitcoin.

The Old Bailey heard that some 42,000 jars were recalled by the supermarket giant in a bid to stop more affected products being unwittingly bought by customers.

The first jar containing metal came to the attention of Tesco and the police in Lockerbie, Scotland, last November.

Julian Christopher QC, prosecuting, said: “There is no dispute that this [jar] was placed by the defendant on November 29 2019, whilst he was on the way back from a journey to Lanark, north of Lockerbie, where he had delivered an off load vehicle on behalf of the business run by his neighbour in Market Rasen.

“CCTV shows that the defendant was in the store for about 15 minutes; he had a trolley, and bought £30 worth of items, including eight jars of Cow and Gate baby food – his own children, of course, being 10 and 12 years old so why would he be buying baby food?

“Stills from the CCTV 5:53pm on November 29 show different angles of the baby food aisle; appears to show him reaching towards the back of the shelf, as if placing a jar there behind some others.”

One Tesco customer who bought the contaminated bay food was Morven Smith, who purchased a jar of Heinz Sweet and Sour Chicken 7plus months food on December 3, 2019.

She was feeding some of the product to her 10 month old son 10 days later when she saw a small metal blade in the bowl, that looked like snapped off parts of a craft knife blade, the jury heard.

Ms Smith then found a second one in the jar and contacted Tesco and also noticed the jar had been marked underneath with a circle and a cross.

All jars of Heinz By Nature 7plus months baby food were removed from sale in its stores and was swiftly followed by a nationally publicised product recall, recovering stock already sold to customers.

The product is one of the flavours on a photograph which the defendant sent to six Tesco stores previously in October, the prosecution said.

Another customer – Harprett Kaur Singh – fed her nine-month-old daughter some Heinz’s Cheese and Tomato Pasta Stars, and the Sunday Chicken Dinner around December 16.

These are the flavours of the two jars shown open and containing metal pieces in a photo allegedly sent by the defendant to the six Tesco stores in October, which she had bought from a Tesco in Rochdale.

Mr Christopher told the jury: “Harprett Kaur Singh’s nine month old daughter was particularly fond of Heinz’s Cheese and Tomato Pasta Stars, and the Sunday Chicken Dinner.”

She then noticed what looked like chippings or shredded metal in the food at that point she did not think much of it, and just threw the jar away.

But a couple of days later she was preparing to feed her daughter some Cheese and Tomato Pasta Stars, and once again saw some chippings or shredded metal in the food.

This time she threw not just that jar away, but all the other jars of Heinz baby food that she had in her cupboard, the prosecution said.

By the time the police found out about these jars in January 2020 it was too late to check the CCTV from the Rochdale store.

Mr Christopher said: “The jury may think that the fact that the two types of jars in which Mrs Kaur Singh found the pieces of metal are the very same flavours which can been seen open and contaminated in the photograph which the defendant sent to the six stores would be a quite extraordinary coincidence if there were any other explanation.”

The product recall, which was covered in the national media, resulted in 42,000 jars being being recovered, either from stores or from customers, but no contaminated jars have been found amongst them.

Mr Christopher added: “On December 30 there was an internet search on his [Wright’s] Toyota laptop for ‘boy autopsy stomach’ .

“Given that he knew from earlier Sam Scott emails that the jar that had been found had not resulted in the death of a baby, this may be an indication that he knew that there were other jars out there, and was checking to see if there had been any fatal results.

“Undeterred, it appears that on January 3 he took some photographs of the Cow & Gate jars he had bought in Lockerbie photographs which were found on his Toyota laptop, with green cross and circle markings underneath two of the jars, and alongside some more metal blades, both large and small.

“This time there were also a number of tin cans included, two of which were similarly marked underneath.”

In another email from a police officer posing as Tesco employee “Sam Scott”, the defendant was allegedly told “this is not a game, you could have killed a baby”.

An undercover officer pretending to be the Tesco worker allegedly offered to send the defendant money via a bank transfer, rather than the Bitcoin he was demanding as part of their investigation, the court heard.

Seven tins, including Peach Halves, Fruit Cocktail, Tomato Soup, Pineapple, and Fruit Cocktail were found at the defendant’s home when a search was conducted, the jury was told.

Mr Christopher said two potentially contaminated tins could not be tracked down by police after searching the property.

He added: “This raises the question of what happened to the two which had the circle and cross markings on the bottom.

“When [the defendant’s home] was searched neither any Cow and Gate jars, nor any Tesco tins with such markings on them, were found anywhere.

“When the defendant was asked in interview whether they had been placed in any Tesco stores he said they had not, and that he had opened the Fruit Cocktail tin and eaten the contents, and then thrown the tin away in his metal recycling bin.

“He did not know how the other marked tin had been disposed of; and the jars would have been emptied down the sink and thrown away in a public bin somewhere.

“Alongside a craft knife and a green marker pen, nearby was a large piece of white plastic, bearing markings appearing similar to some that can be seen on the white surface in the photograph, and a plastic container holding various blades similar to those found in the jars.”

During an exchange of emails between an undercover officer who called himself, “Michael Oak” and the account known as “Guy Brush”, the defendant threatened to tell the press about the contaminated products.

The defendant then suggested that there was a new, female member of the conspiracy team, who was travelling round the country visiting Tesco shops.

The prosecution claimed this was a veiled threat that she would be planting contaminated products in them.

Then in October a batch of similar letters were received at four stores in which the demand was increased to 150 Bitcoin.

It was said that one can of fruit had harmless blue food dye injected into it had been left on the shelves at each store as a warning.

In each case the can was said to have been marked with a blue cross underneath.

Other unidentified products had apparently been contaminated with salmonella and if payment was not made, threatening that in future prussic acid – or hydrogen cyanide – would be used, the court heard.

A product recall was initiated across the country, the court heard.

One threatening letter warned the supermarket giant the press would be told about the contamination and warned if payment was not made, “you will become famous”.

Another threatening letter signed off with “must dash, we have some shopping to do in your stores this weekend”.

A separate one said: “We visited your store and left contaminated food on your shelves.”

Another one read: “Pay us and we will stop , don’t pay us and your customers will start to suffer.

On September 27 last year three photographs showing jars of Heinz baby food placed on top of a Tesco bag, with two jars with the lids off and pieces of metal placed inside, the court heard.

The flavours of the open jars are Cheese and Tomato Pasta Stars, and Sunday Chicken Dinner, the back row of the second photograph includes Sweet & Sour Chicken.

The data indicates the photographs were taken on a camera, one of which was found when police searched the defendant’s property in February this year.

In March 2019 there was a one off email allegedly sent by the defendant from his “Guy Brush” alias email address, saying that 31 goods contaminated with toxic chemicals had been left in Tesco stores in January and February, and demanding payment.

Another threatening email said “we have run out of patients” and claimed some of the contaminated products had been sold and “complaints had been made on social media”.

The defendant allegedly then threatened that the “homemade chemical” would be added to more products.

Mr Christopher said Wright “enjoyed the cat and mouse game” by taunting Tesco about them not finding the contaminated products.

Wright has admitted sending the threats, but says he only did so because he was being forced to by a gang of Travellers, who he claimed threatened to kill his family.

But Mr Christopher asked the jury: “Is that something you would expect to see from someone who was in fear of their life?

“When considering the defendant’s account of having no option but to commit these offences the jury may want to consider why it was that he went back to the activity in March 2019, having not been compelled to make any blackmail threats for the preceding period of almost three months.”

The allegations against Wright, also include one of blackmailing motorist John Winter who he had an altercation with in Nottinghamshire last January.

The incident involving Mr Winter only came to light because Wright mentioned it in his police interview, seemingly claiming his rival may have been the plot to force him to blackmail Tesco.

Some months later, Mr Winter received what was described as a”nasty anonymous letter”, claiming to be from an international group of mercenaries made up of explosive experts and ex-military members, that “solve problems around the world”.

The letter claimed to be acting on behalf of Wright as their “client”, but the prosecution claim it was sent by the defendant.

In the letter the defendant allegedly threatened: “We see you as fair game as you use violence in everyday life. Our team consists of ex-military. Our experts in explosives work for many governments and organisations and we solve many problems around the world…eradicating our targets.

“We will start exterminating your family. Your family’s corpses will be posted on the web to show we mean business and that you are the cause of their deaths.

“Don’t f*** with us or our client ever again. Start buying coffins, smaller ones are cheaper and you will need more the longer you make us wait.”

The letter also described how to kill Somali pirates using “headshots”.

Mr Christopher prosecuting told the jury: “The prosecution suggest that not only is this an extremely frightening instance of blackmail in its own right, with its threats to female members of Mr Winter’s family members, suggesting he knows a fair bit about them.

“But it is hardly the sort of thing one would expect someone who is so fearful for his and his family’s safety that he feels compelled to carry out a sustained blackmailing campaign against Tesco would send to one of the very people with whom he claims to be so fearful of.

“On the contrary, the jury may think that the defendant was putting the knowledge and techniques which he had enjoyed developing during that campaign against Tesco to use against someone with whom he had a grievance with.”

There was then another lull in the threatening correspondence sent to Tesco, until last Autumn, when Wright allegedly switched his focus to baby food.

Wright then returned to sending letters to Tesco in October 2019, telling one recipient to “imagine a baby’s mouth with blood pouring out of it”.

The defendant allegedly sent six Tesco shops around the country copies of the same letter, the court heard.

They were posted from the Peterborough area and it seems likely that this happened during a journey which Wright made on October 1, the prosecution said.

The letters did not say that the jars had been left in the stores which received them, the prosecution added.

A series of emails from the “Dairy Pirates” to Tesco, stated: “Our demands are simple – pay up and we tell you where the jars are.”

Mr Christopher added: “However, by the date of this letter jars contaminated with sharp metal had indeed been left in Tesco stores in Rochdale and Lockerbie.”

Wright denies six charges, including four of blackmail and two of contaminating food.

The trial continues.

.