Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Deadly Cook: assistant chef slowly poisoned restaurant staff

A 55-year-old Spanish cook is behind bars on suspicion of poisoning the food of at least 21 of his coworkers, possibly resulting in the death of one. His actions paint a perverse picture of betrayal, meticulously dosed out in secret over many years.

The city of Gijon is a lovely seaside resort in the region of Asturias in the north of Spain. Famous for its warmth and hospitality, it is a festive place with a rich history and an equally rich cuisine. Food here is typically accompanied by some of the local alcoholic cider, known in Spanish as sidra, and restaurants specializing in Asturian food and cider are called sidrerias.

Tino Comeron and Chelo Toyos opened El Lavaderu sidreria 14 years ago. Like many of the sidrerias in the region, it has imposing stone walls, sturdy wooden beams, large wooden tables and hefty wooden barrels to store the cider in. It was a prosperous business that kept growing to meet demand.

In 2004 Tino and Chelo decided they needed an assistant chef. They hired Andres Avelino, a family acquaintance of Chelo, who had run a bar before and who owned a tiny store of his own in a neighboring town. 'A very nice man, always willing to do favors,' Chelo recently recalled.

Andres also had a friend named Eva who worked in the kitchen at El Lavaderu. “They were old friends, for over 20 years,” waiter Gustavo Vera, 35, told the El Pais newspaper. His co-worker Benjamin Menendez agreed: “They went out for a drink, dinner...always together.” Vity Mancha who worked there for three years as extra help said: “They went on holiday abroad...together.” A Mediterranean cruise, Paris, Vienna, Thailand...

In 2006 business was still thriving at El Lavaderu, but something else began to go wrong. Alberto, the head chef, who had what has been described as a great relationship with Andres, became mysteriously ill. His skin reddened, he had trouble breathing, and he had vomiting spells. He kept getting worse and worse, but no cause could be found. He ended up taking a leave of absence and returning to his home town. After that, others began to have similar symptoms: kitchen staff, waiters, the owners... “We thought it was an allergy,” Chelo said. Almost everyone was ill. Only Andres and Eva seemed unaffected.

The same chronic health problems continued. Then, in May 2011, Andres and Juan Gil, the chef at the time, were working in the kitchen, when Juan collapsed to the floor, an apparent victim of a heart attack. People say Andres appeared distraught and cried his eyes out at the funeral.

In January 2012, Tino and Chelo sold the restaurant. Eight months later the new owner, Juan Luis Alfonso, took sick. He decided all of this was too strange and contacted the police about the mystery illness he and so many of his staff suffered from. He gave them the names of 14 people he knew had been affected – later the names of former employees were added to the list, bringing the total to 21.
He explained that when anyone took time off from work, they stopped having symptoms. No itching, no dizziness, no vomiting. On sick leave, vacation, or a few days off, they began to feel as good as new. All were cured, as if by magic, of the strange disease. When they returned to work, the symptoms soon returned.

He also told the police that some of the waiters had become suspicious of the assistant chef. One thing they all had in common was that Andres prepared a sandwich for them daily – and they claimed he always made sure they ate it.

As the staff began to connect the dots, they realized that the symptoms began when they drank anything
alcoholic, whether a sip of cider or mug of beer. And there was something about the timing, too. It was not simply when they drank alcohol that they felt ill, but when they drank it after eating something Andres had given them. The police asked that they keep an eye on him and make sure that no one, customer or colleague, ate or drank anything he prepared.

One day a co-worker spying on Andres saw him take out a little vial of liquid and pour it into a cup of coffee he was making for someone. Juan Luis Alfonso provided it to the police for testing. The result left no doubt that it contained a dangerous substance – calcium cyanamide, a drug used in the treatment of alcoholism. A clear liquid that has no flavor, this medication can cause drowsiness, dizziness, vomiting, skin irritation, tachycardia, hypertension, multiple organ failure and even death.
obtained the medicine from a pharmacy near his place of work. Something he did often and in large quantities, according to the police investigation.

It turned out Andres, who reportedly drank profusely each night, was under treatment for alcoholism. He easily obtained the medicine from a pharmacy near his place of work. Something he did often and in large quantities, according to the police investigation.

Andres is now in jail awaiting trial on fourteen charges of attempted homicide. That number is likely to increase. He has been declared sane, but no one has put forth a motive for his crimes. Maybe it was just for the pleasure of seeing others suffer.

Each of the victims considered Andres a friend. He spent time with them, hugged them, accompanied some of them to the doctor, knew their families, even had the keys to some of their houses. “A normal fellow” – “affectionate” – “nice” – “attentive,” are some of the terms used to describe the man they thought they knew.

One thing is certain, however: almost no one any longer believes that the cause of Juan Gil's death was natural, although nothing can be proven since his unsuspecting family had his body cremated. The one exception to the doubters is Eva, who seems as immune to the suspicions about her friend as she was to the strange epidemic that struck those around her. She continues to work in the restaurant's kitchen, but reportedly refuses to talk about what happened. People will have to wait until she takes the stand to hear what she has to say about the relationship between the assistant chef and the poison, the illness and the death at El Lavaderu.

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