Woman who coughed on $35K worth of grocery store food charged with four felonies

The store's co-owner said he was "sick to my stomach" about the food loss. "When so many people are worried about the security of our food supply, it is even more disturbing."
Image: A Pennsylvania grocery story disposed of about $35,000 worth of food after a customer purposefully coughed on it.
A Pennsylvania grocery story disposed of about $35,000 worth of food after a customer purposefully coughed on it.Gerrity's Supermarkets via Facebook

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

A woman who played a "twisted prank" at a Pennsylvania grocery store Wednesday by purposely coughing on about $35,000 worth of food that had to be thrown out, was charged with four felonies, including counts of making terrorist threats, police said

"Today was a very challenging day," Joe Fasula wrote Wednesday on the Facebook page of the Gerrity's supermarket chain, which he co-owns.

"A woman, who the police know to be a chronic problem in the community," walked into the chain's Hanover Township store and "proceeded to purposely cough on our fresh produce, and a small section of our bakery, meat case and grocery," Fasula said.

The Hanover Township Police Department said in a statement late Thursday that the suspect, identified as Margaret Cirko, 35, was making threats that she was sick while coughing and spitting on the food.

"Cirko continued this behavior in several aisles before attempting to steal a 12-pack of beer as she was being ordered to leave the store by employees," police said.

She was arrested and charged with two felony counts of terrorist threats, one felony count of threats to use a "biological agent" and one felony count of criminal mischief. She also faces misdemeanor counts of criminal attempt to commit retail theft and disorderly conduct.

Cirko underwent a mental health evaluation on Wednesday, police said, and authorities were working to get her tested for coronavirus, Fasula said.

"While there is little doubt this woman was doing it as a very twisted prank ... we had no choice but to throw out all product she came in contact with," he said. "Working closely with the Hanover Township health inspector, we identified every area that she was in, we disposed of the product and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected everything."

Fasula wrote that supermarket staff estimated the value of the food to be "well over $35,000."

"I am also absolutely sick to my stomach about the loss of food," Fasula wrote. "While it is always a shame when food is wasted, in these times when so many people are worried about the security of our food supply, it is even more disturbing.”

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In a statement last week in which Fasula announced employees at his nine stores would receive an extra $1 an hour, he shared that some departments, including the meat and dairy sections, were lacking food as people rushed to stock up in the midst of the pandemic.

Fasula said his staff "did the best they could to get the woman out of the store as fast as possible" and get police on the scene.

"The only silver lining to this travesty is that it gave us the unfortunate opportunity to test our protocols and demonstrate how seriously we take your safety," Fasula concluded. "One thing is for sure, we will have the cleanest display and freshest produce anywhere in northeast PA."

Sure enough, in updates Thursday, Fasula posted pictures of his fully restocked shelves and notes of support community members had left behind.

"I am humbled by the outpouring of support that our company and our team have received," Fasula wrote. "While my previous post received an unimaginable amount of attention, this post is by far my most important," he said, sharing seven safety tips for how to keep customers and grocery workers safe.

"PS Rule 8: don't cough on anything," he concluded.

Cirko is being held at the Luzerne County Prison on $50,000 bail. She is due in court on April 8.