Santa Ana police close case on Rosca de Reyes bread laced with synthetic pot

SANTA ANA – Nearly a year after a Santa Ana bakery sold holiday sweet bread mysteriously laced with synthetic marijuana that sickened more than 40 people, police have closed the criminal case without making any arrests.

Santa Ana Police Department officials said Tuesday they had reached the decision after consulting with U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigators who have been trying to determine how the drug got into the rosca de reyes bread sold by Cholula’s Bakery, located in the 1000 block of East 17th Street.

“They (the FDA) will be closing the case and there are no further leads to follow-up on,” Santa Ana police Sgt. Gerry Serrano said in a statement. “They are not able to determine the source of the contamination. All the evidence has been processed and all employees interviewed multiple times. Neither provided information on the source of the crime. We have exhausted all investigative leads.”

In May, Cholula’s Bakery changed its name to D F Bakery but has kept the same ownership, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The bakery was open for business Tuesday. Dozens of fresh pastries were stacked on trays in a small kitchen and a lone customer ate at a table.

The bakery will again be selling rosca de reyes bread for the Three Kings Day celebration on Jan. 6, said a woman who works behind the counter but did not give her name.

Phone calls to the manager on Tuesday seeking comment were not returned.

Earlier this year, Cholula’s made the bread prior to the 2015 Three Kings Day celebration and distributed it to nine stores in Orange County and one in Long Beach.

People who ate the bread became ill with symptoms that included heart palpitations, dizziness, numbness and hallucinations.

The Register obtained a sample of the bread and hired S&N Laboratories, a Santa Ana facility licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, to test it.

Neil Spingarn, a pharmacologist who heads up S&N Laboratories, analyzed the sample and found it contaminated with “a substantial” amount of a synthetic cannabinoid – an artificial THC with intensified effects.

“The levels in the cake are not small,” Spingarn said at the time of the testing. “What is most striking is that this was not inadvertent.”

Synthetic cannabinoid, frequently used to make “spice,” “incense” and “K2,”, is a chemical alternative to marijuana that’s often is diluted with water, sprayed onto herbs and smoked like pot.

Spice looks like marijuana, but its side effects are more severe and can include hallucinations, aggressive behavior and hypertension, police and health officials say. The potpourri of chemicals are not listed on the packaging.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department crime lab later confirmed that rosca de reyes bread from Cholula’s was laced with a synthetic cannabinoid, and Santa Ana police launched a criminal investigation in conjunction with the FDA.

Ireri Hinojosa, a Santa Ana woman who after eating the bread was treated at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, said she was unaware authorities couldn’t determine the source of the synthetic pot.

“At the end of the day, the owner (of the bakery) should be responsible,” she said Tuesday.

Hinojosa and Esquivel Araceli are both suing Bonifacio Cholula, listed as the principal owner of Cholula’s, for negligence in connection with the ill effects they purportedly suffered from consuming the bread.

The pair are seeking up to $25,000 in damages, according to the suits filed in Orange County Superior Court.

Bonifacio Cholula should be “on the hook” for damages regardless of how the bread was tainted, said Vincent S. Ammirato, an Irvine attorney, who is representing Hinojosa and Araceli.

“These people suffered because they were exposed without consent to a chemical not supposed to be in bread,” he said Tuesday.

Efforts to contact Bonifacio Cholula were unsuccessful. A woman who answered the door Tuesday at his address listed in court documents said he didn’t live there. Court records do not identify his attorney.

A case management conference on the lawsuits is slated for Feb. 28 in Orange County Superior Court.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7757

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