Sunday, February 25, 2018
Public safety

Tampa police close LSD investigation with no answers about tainted meat

TAMPA — Before Elyana Serrano threw up, her sister Rayna was laughing and trying to grab colors out of the air. When Ronnie Morales looked at his hand, he saw several other hands jutting from his wrist. His pregnant girlfriend, Jessica Rosado, couldn't feel her fingers or toes.

Doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital suspected the family of four had been poisoned when they all showed up there in March. They summoned Tampa police, who tested cuts of steak the family had for lunch. The results showed it was tainted with LSD.

As the case drew international headlines, detectives went to work trying to figure out how the hallucinogenic drug had found its way into the beef.

Eight months later, they still have no answers. Their efforts are chronicled in a police report that was released last week after the case was deemed inactive.

"It is a mystery," said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "And it will probably always remain a mystery."

•••

Rosado called 911 about 4 p.m. March 3 and reported that Morales was sick. The family drove to the hospital, near their rented home at 2744 Bel Aire Circle, before paramedics arrived.

At the hospital, Morales was having trouble walking and breathing. Rosado told nurses she felt dizzy and was seeing colors. Her heart raced and she began to hyperventilate. The two girls, Elyana, 7, and Rayna, 6, showed similar symptoms.

All had breathing tubes placed in their throats. Rosado was taken to St. Joseph's Women's Hospital, where she underwent an emergency C-section and delivered a baby boy.

Morales and Rosado later told detectives they had come to Tampa a few days earlier from Connecticut. They were uncertain about whether they wanted to make Florida their home.

That day, Morales told police, they had decided they would move back after the baby was born. He later went to a Walmart and used the last of Rosado's food stamps to buy the package of bottom-round steak.

He brought it home and baked it in the kitchen oven, the first time he had cooked a meal there, according to the report. He bundled the steak in wheat wraps with onions, seasoning and garlic powder. The family ate. Not long after, they all got sick.

Investigators collected blood and urine samples from the four. They also went to the house and seized the leftover meat, the packaging and the oven in which the food was cooked.

After several federal and state agencies declined to take the case, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office agreed to test the meat and identified the LSD. When the case made the news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration assigned agents to assist Tampa police.

The FDA conducted its own tests and also confirmed the drug, police said. Forensic technicians used ultraviolet light to look for traces of the substance in the oven but found none.

Investigators spoke with representatives from Cargill, the company that produced the meat. They learned the beef was slaughtered in Newnan, Ga. From there, it was packed and shipped in a sealed container to a distribution facility in Winter Haven.

Quality control officials at the facility noted no signs of tampering with any of the shipments when they arrived.

The Walmart store, which would have refused any shipments that had been ripped or broken, also accepted all packages. The packages that were discarded from store shelves after the incident showed no sign of tampering, the company said. Likewise, no other reports of illness ever surfaced.

Detectives examined surveillance video from inside the store in the days before Morales made his purchase. At one point, two men were seen near the case where the meat was stored. One leaned into the case for about a minute and a half while the other stepped back, swinging his arms "like he was nervous," according to the report. Detectives identified the two, a father and son, and interviewed them.

Both recalled being in the store. They were shown the video and acknowledged that they appeared "suspicious," but denied doing anything wrong, the report said. Neither had a documented history of drug-related arrests. Investigators concluded they were not involved.

•••

Within days of their release from the hospital, Morales, Rosado and the children returned to Connecticut. Investigators considered the possibility that one of them had put LSD in the meat.

In April, a Tampa detective traveled with USDA and FDA agents to Waterbury, Conn., and reinterviewed the couple. The police report offers no specifics about what was asked, but notes that the couple was cooperative. Both gave statements consistent with their previous stories. Both also consented to polygraph tests, police said. They passed.

Other leads were examined, but none apparently yielded anything significant. On Oct. 21, police labeled the case inactive.

"All of the victims recovered completely and none are suffering any adverse effects from the LSD exposure," Detective Rachel Cholnik wrote. "There is no further investigation at this time."

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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