Courts & Crime

Accused tomato cheat comes to court

Indicted tomato king Frederick Scott Salyer is expected to appear in Sacramento federal court today asking to be let out on bail, despite the government's contention that he was poised to flee the country and leave his crumbling agribusiness empire behind when he was grabbed Feb. 4 by the FBI in New York.

ribusiness empire behind when he was grabbed Feb. 4 by the FBI in New York.

Salyer's lawyer plans to argue that the woman who told FBI agents he was planning to disappear is a disgruntled former employee who made up the story after she stole $500,000 worth of artwork, collectible guns, cookware and, most importantly, his beloved dog, Louis, from Salyer's Pebble Beach mansion.

Defense attorney Malcolm Segal will press for immediate release of his client, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Flynn will vigorously oppose that. Salyer, 54, is expected to plead not guilty to an array of charges.

It is the latest chapter in a compelling tale that the government says was born out of hubris and greed inside Salyer's SK Foods LP, where top officials allegedly bribed food conglomerate executives so they would buy from SK Foods at above-market prices and share competitors' bids with the company. SK officials are also accused of peddling substandard or old and moldy products for use in foods such as salsa, tomato paste and ketchup.

The company, which controlled up to 20 percent of the tomato crop in California, where most of the nation's tomato products come from, was sold out of bankruptcy last year for $39 million.

Salyer faces racketeering and related charges in an indictment that alleges he operated the huge business as a corrupt enterprise. Of the 10 others who have been charged, nine have pleaded guilty and one has agreed to do so.

Federal officials have made it clear Salyer is the big fish they wanted to snare, and they have sought to portray him as a surefire risk to skip the country and settle where he could not be extradited.

"The allegations are false," Segal said.

The claim that Salyer was fleeing was made by a former trusted assistant, Jeanne Johnston, a woman he paid $10,000 a month to watch over his home, court documents state. He also paid Johnston's daughter an additional $5,000 a month to take care of Louis, a cavalier King Charles spaniel described by one friend as Salyer's "best friend" and by another as a "beloved pet" he would never have left behind.

The FBI arrested Salyer at John F. Kennedy International Airport as he stepped off a flight from Switzerland. He had a return ticket to Europe for the next day. He was ordered held without bail after a hearing in Brooklyn, but Segal said the FBI failed to tell the federal magistrate judge Salyer also had a one-way ticket to San Francisco for this week so he could be present for the birth of his first grandchild.

Salyer's presence overseas, where he was living in an apartment in Cannes, France, was aboveboard and necessary for him to reinvent himself as a credible businessman after publicity in the United States about the federal probe had dried up credit and forced his SK Foods into bankruptcy, Segal said.

Salyer has known since April 2008 that he was targeted and "federal agents and lawyers have been hovering around him like heirs to a family fortune," Segal added. He never made any move to flee, even though he could have done so on one of the two private airplanes he leased and was certified to pilot himself, the attorney said.

The FBI did not let the Brooklyn magistrate judge in on the facts that Johnson had been accused of stealing from Salyer and there were holes in her story, he said.

Johnston named for the FBI the countries Salyer was eyeing where he wouldn't have to worry about being hauled back to face the charges, and the bureau apparently took her word for it even though every one of the countries has an extradition treaty with the United States, Segal said.

The government has indicated that Salyer had stripped his Pebble Beach mansion of many of his belongings and put it on the market for $7 million, and Johnston told the FBI that Salyer had instructed her to sell off his belongings, court documents state.

Segal said Johnston made up the story after a Salyer confidante discovered the belongings and the dog were missing, and a theft report was filed with the Monterey County Sheriff's Department.

In addition, Salyer had spurned romantic overtures by both Johnston and her daughter, according to court papers.

Salyer's representatives and Johnston's attorney eventually signed an agreement calling for her to return the property and hand over the dog in exchange for $3,000 in "boarding expenses," court documents state. Her lawyer later voided a cashier's check payment and sent it back on Feb. 9, the documents state.

Johnston told sheriff's investigators that the theft report was "retaliation" for her cooperating with the FBI, according to the documents.

Segal argued Salyer never would have abandoned his two daughters, ages 20 and 28, or his "lifetime of achievement, respect and philanthropic good deeds."

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.