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Tampering scare ends; questions of motivation remain

The needle-in-the-can scare fizzled out Friday like so much soda gone flat.

Police continued to arrest people across the country for falsely claiming they had found dangerous objects in their soda cans.

Pepsi-Cola Co., meanwhile, declared the cases all but closed.

According to the Associated Press, more than 50 cases of alleged tampering had been reported in at least 23 states.

It began nine days ago with a report from an 82-year-old man in Tacoma, Wash. Then propelled by its powerful imagery, word of the case spread from coast to coast.

"I can't think of anything we've handled that is more bizarre than this," said Betsy Adams, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration.

There were more than a dozen arrests and confessions of false reports as of Friday.

"These developments bring us a day closer to business as usual," said Craig Weatherup, president and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America.

Most complaints involved hypodermic needles or syringes allegedly found in Pepsi cans. But other items were reported, including a crack cocaine vial, screws and a bullet.

One of those arrested was John Sedwick of St. Petersburg.

Two screws had fallen into his can of caffeine-free Diet Coke when he was getting ready to hang a bulletin board at the Dunedin carpet-cleaning business where he works, he said.

The thought of certain attention prompted him to cry foul.

Sedwick, 45, was arrested by Dunedin police on Friday and charged with filing a false report. He was released from the Pinellas County Jail late Friday after posting $150 bail.

"It just doesn't pay to tamper with cans," Sedwick said. "You're going to get caught eventually. I'm asking everybody not to do what I did."

At first, Sedwick, of 3101 52nd Way N, said he made his claims Thursday because "the screws fell into the can and with all of these reports going on . . ."

Police didn't believe him.

"There's no way two screws accidentally fell into the can," said Dunedin police Detective Terry Ferrell. "You tell me how two of them could get into that tiny hole on top of the can?"

Filing a false police report is a first-degree misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of a year in jail or a $1,000 fine or both.

Meanwhile, PepsiCo, which has about a third of the domestic soft-drink market, rushed to reassure the public.

"As America now knows, those stories about Diet Pepsi were a hoax. Plain and simple, not true," proclaimed an ad that was to appear in newspapers today.

Those who make a false product tampering claim to the authorities face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine under federal law, and arrests under that statute and other tampering laws continued to mount Friday.

In Colorado, a woman who police said was filmed by a store's hidden camera as she put a syringe in a can of Pepsi was arraigned before a federal magistrate and released on $10,000 bail.

A man in West Hollywood, Calif., who told authorities that he put a syringe in a Pepsi can was also arrested. Two people each in Missouri and Illinois were charged with making false claims.

There were eight earlier arrests nationwide.

Only two reports of foreign objects in cans were confirmed. A Jacksonville man gave authorities a sealed can of Diet Pepsi that contained a metal screw, and in Litchfield, Conn., a piece of machinery was found a Coca-Cola.

Authorities said both cases were probably accidents.

Why then, have so many lied?

"I've been real depressed lately," Sedwick said, adding that his doctor has prescribed medication for him. "I just wasn't thinking."

A 25-year-old California woman, Leilani Rose, cited her recent divorce, the responsibility of raising two children on her own, and the fading of a new relationship.

"I thought I was losing everything," she said. "I was just basically wanting attention."

Dr. Jonas Rappaport, a Baltimore psychiatrist who advises the Grocery Manufacturers of America, agreed.

"When it no longer produces the result desired, either attention or money, then it won't work and it will stop," Rappaport said.

Some blamed news accounts.

"Unusual is one of the criteria for news, and this certainly was unusual," said anchor Gary Justice of KIRO-TV, the Seattle station that reported the first claim. "Because it caught our attention, we thought it would catch the attention of people watching, too."

It did.

"Journalists should be concerned about their impact," said Jack Cox, director of the Foundation for American Communications, which educates journalists.

"It's pretty clear that there is a direct correlation between publicity and tampering."

There also is a link to whatever captures the imagination.

"I'm sure with the current state of affairs," said Jesse Meyers, publisher of Beverage Digest, "we will soon have reports of small dinosaurs in cans."

_ Information from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post and staff writer Tim Roche was used in this report.