Bangor man John Walker who peddled poisonous diet pills on website avoids jail
A man who admitted marketing and selling a "highly toxic" and potentially deadly industrial chemical as a diet pill has narrowly avoided going to prison.
In the first case of its kind in the UK, Judge Brian Sherrard told an emotional John Walker (44) he was satisfied that "only a custodial sentence could possibly reflect the gravitas of your offending" by selling the poisonous chemical DNP.
However, he suspended Walker's jail sentence for three years at Downpatrick Crown Court.
"Your irresponsibility put members of the public at significant risk, a fact that you at long last seem to recognise," said Judge Sherrard.
The judge said he was suspending the sentence because of Walker's guilty pleas, as "you recognise the gravitas of your offending and that you are ashamed, rightly, of your actions".
At an earlier hearing Walker, from Railwayview Street in Bangor, pleaded guilty to two counts - one of failing to comply with EC food regulation by supplying 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP), which was unsafe and unfit for human consumption, and another of false health advertising by referring to the amount or rate of weight loss. All were committed between July 7, 2014 and September 13 last year.
Opening the facts on Monday, prosecutor Chris Holmes had told the court DNP was a "toxic industrial chemical" and that since 2007 there had been 87 cases of systemic poisoning by DNP reported, with 12 proving fatal.
In relation to Walker, he said the National Food Crime Unit became aware of a website selling DNP.
Working in conjunction with an investigation team from Ards and North Down Borough Council, the website was tracked to an offshore hosting company based in The Seychelles.
Having conducted a test purchase, and despite him trying to hide the trail, investigations into mail and bank accounts led to Walker.
Food crime officers and the PSNI searched Walker's home last September, said Mr Holmes, adding that they uncovered DNP and a "capsule maker".
He said that, essentially, DNP was bought in bulk at "for instance, £50 a kilo, which is then sold on in capsules at £36 for 12, so there's huge profit to be made".
"The difficulty is that this product has no beneficial background whatsoever, either pharmaceutically or naturally," added Mr Holmes.
While marketed as a weight loss drug, the lawyer told the court DNP was on the national poisons register, and that people may lose weight using it but "they're losing weight because they have been poisoned".
Arrested and interviewed, Walker admitted setting up and running the online DNP business but claimed he was working in the mistaken belief that the product was not really DNP.
"In effect, he did not believe he was supplying 'real' DNP, but a less harmful alternative," said the lawyer.
But he added that "by his pleas of guilty he has now accepted that this was untrue".
Having recounted the facts yesterday, Judge Sherrard revealed further details about the website Walker had set up to sell the pills.
Quoting from the website, which has since been shut down, the judge told the court how Walker had written to potential customers saying that "people may argue over its dangerousness if misused but I have yet to meet or talk to anyone who would say it doesn't work".
Walker's business, which netted £8,500 in three months, was only stopped thanks "to the intervention of Ards and North Down Borough Council", Judge Sherrard told him. He said there was no doubt about "the very real risks of ingesting DNP - it's toxic even in small doses with an array of side-effects and it's been linked to multiple deaths".
"It is extremely dangerous and it is clear from the evidence before this court that you knew it to be dangerous," said the judge.
As well as the suspended sentence, Walker was ordered to pay £8,500 in costs - his profits from his illegal business. However, Mr Holmes said earlier that "doesn't even come close" to the amount the authorities expended in the probe and prosecution.