ST. LOUIS (AP) _ The owner of a car shop has become the first person in the nation prosecuted for intentionally releasing ozone-eating Freon into the atmosphere.

George Hofele pleaded guilty Wednesday to a charge of violating the U.S. Clean Air Act. A tip from a former employee led to Hofele's arrest for improperly handling Freon, a gaseous compound used as a refrigerant in vehicle air conditioners.

''We are prosecuting this defendant because he endangered all of us,'' U.S. Attorney Edward Dowd Jr. said Wednesday at a news conference. ''We wanted to send the message to any violators that we will prosecute you.''

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon said Hofele ''is a business person who made a business choice to spoil the environment. That cannot be tolerated.''

The Clean Air Act, which went into effect in 1992, requires mechanics who remove Freon to use equipment that filters, cleans and recycles it. Authorities said Hofele admitted he failed to purchase that equipment, which costs between $2,000 and $3,000.

Hofele could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He was scheduled to be sentenced July 29.

Hofele owns G&H Tire and Auto in St. Louis County. Dowd said the shop removed Freon while servicing up to 60 vehicle air conditioners over 18 months, ending last July.

The release of Freon into the atmosphere is blamed for helping to deplete the ozone layer. Some studies suggest that leads to increased ultraviolet radiation, which may increase the risk of skin cancer and other diseases.

Dowd said chloroflourocarbons, or CFCs, are in Freon and eat away at the ozone layer. Environmental Protection Agency statistics show that 30 percent of all CFCs released into the atmosphere come from vehicle air conditioners and most releases occur during service and repair, Dowd said.