Courts & Crime

Heir to California tomato empire faces prison in fraud case

Scott Salyer could have taken the easy way.

He could have lived off the interest from one of California's largest farm fortunes, whiling away the days pursuing his passions of dove hunting and Go Kart racing.

But that wasn't the Salyer way. Never has been.

Since his grandfather Clarence started the Salyer Land Co. in Corcoran back in the 1920s, ambition and conflict have marked the family history.

The Salyers survived water wars and labor strife. They fought with rival farmers, government agencies and among themselves. By the time Clarence "Cockeye" Salyer died in 1974, the family controlled 100,000 acres of California land.

And still that wasn't enough.

Maybe that is how Frederick Scott Salyer ended up in this mess, facing a possible 20 years in federal prison in what prosecutors describe as one of the most audacious food industry schemes ever, one apparently designed to corner the nation's market for processed tomato products.

The conspiracy drove up food prices for Americans nationwide who used certain ketchup, salsa, juice, paste and any of dozens of other tomato-based products, and introduced old and moldy tomatoes into grocery stores, prosecutors contend.

The government has more than half a dozen food industry executives lined up to testify against him to buttress its case.

Salyer, whose attorney declined to allow him to be interviewed, has pleaded not guilty and plans to fight the charges.

From the time he earned his agribusiness degree at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, in 1979, Salyer has worked in family ventures, creating new companies, seeking out markets and building an international empire that, until its collapse last year, did more than $700 million in annual sales.

He took a farming operation that grew only cotton and safflower and expanded into lettuce and tomatoes, shaping it into one of the industry's largest producers.

Today, the 54-year-old Salyer sits in a seventh-floor cell at the Sacramento County Main Jail, denied bail because a federal magistrate judge has deemed him a flight risk.

A lifelong friend who wanted to hold up pictures in front of the visiting room glass so Salyer could get his first look at his newborn grandson said deputies would not allow it and Salyer's lawyer eventually had to get the photos to him.

"Scott's a tough guy, but he's had to really, really dig deep to hold up under this thing," said Bob Pruett, 53, a businessman and confidant who met Salyer 40 years ago on the Go Kart circuit.

"It's very difficult to see him in that situation."

People who have known him for decades say they cannot fathom how it came to this, how the ribald and sometimes racially charged conversations caught on electronic intercepts could have come from a man they say is generous to a fault and as down to earth as any of the farmworkers he employed.

"What he's being accused of and the Scott I know, that just doesn't square with me," Pruett said. "Just from a business perspective, it doesn't add up. So what's the rest of the story?"

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