SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge on Friday showed leniency toward a former exterminator who pleaded guilty to incorrectly spraying a pesticide that was later linked to the deaths of two young girls, sentencing the man to probation rather than prison.
Coleman Nocks and his former employer, Bugman Pest and Lawn Inc., pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count each of unlawful use of a registered pesticide. Under the plea agreement, Nocks had expected some prison time but was sentenced to three years of probation and 100 hours of community service instead.
Nocks, who was working as an exterminator, had applied the pesticide Fumitoxin outside the family's home in an effort to rid the property of rodents in February 2010. Investigators said toxic gas from the chemical seeped inside the home, sickening the family and killing 4-year-old Rebecca Toone and her 15-month-old sister Rachel.
"This is one of the saddest cases I've ever seen," U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said.
The judge said Nocks appears to have accepted responsibility for his actions and never intended to harm the girls or their family. In pleading guilty, Nocks said he applied Fumitoxin in a burrow system less than 15 feet from the house in amounts greater than recommended on the pesticide's label and failed to leave the family with safety information.
"This was extreme negligence and recklessness," Benson said. "But this is a man who has clearly come to grips with what he's done."
Nocks said he had lost his own child years ago and could empathize with the pain felt by parents Nathan and Brenda Toone. Nocks said the tragedy of the girls' deaths had weighed heavily on him and that he continued to battle anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.
"I've dealt with the sorrow and pain of what happened," Nocks said in court. "It's damaged my mind, my body and my soul."
The judge, however, was less generous with Bugman, saying company president Raymond Wilson had failed to acknowledge its role in the deaths. Benson sentenced Bugman to a $3,000 fine and 36 months of probation, effectively shutting down the company.
"If I had to choose between putting Mr. Nocks or Mr. Wilson in jail, I'd put Mr. Wilson in. I can't ..." Benson said. "He put all the blame on Mr. Nocks."
Wilson addressed the court, expressing sorrow for the Toone family. He said that as president of the Bugman company since 1984, he had stressed a "safety first" message with employees and had corrected every infraction ever noted by regulators.
Nathan and Brenda Toone hugged in court following the hearing and then cried with the nearly two dozen friends and family who came to support them.
"We understand that the choices made were not malicious," Nathan Toone said in a statement read during the hearing. "But we also recognize that as a direct result of the failure to follow directions, failure to think, and most importantly, failure to act in a safe and conscientious manger, we have lost two of the most precious gifts that we have ever been given and that tour lives have been changed forever."
Two months after the girls' deaths, the Environmental Protection Agency expanded its restrictions on the use of aluminum and magnesium phosphide products, including Fumitoxin, because the toxic gases they release had been associated with accidental poisoning incidents.
The restrictions banned the use of the chemicals in residential areas, including single and multi-family homes, nursing homes, schools, day care facilities and hospitals.
State regulators also investigated the case. Nocks voluntarily surrendered his pesticide applicator license and agreed to never reapply. The state fined Bugman and seven employees more than $46,000 in August 2010 after an investigation into the girls' deaths.