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Orkin Lax On Safety In Fatal Fumigation, Witness Testifies

November 16, 1988

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) _ Orkin Exterminating Co. Inc. did not follow its own safety procedures when fumigating the home of an elderly couple who died of pesticide poisoning, a former employee testified Tuesday.

The nation’s largest exterminator faces fines of up to $500,000 if federal prosecutors can show the Sept. 25, 1986, fumigation of Hubert and Freida Watson’s Galax home with the pesticide Vikane was what killed them within days. The maximum fine will be $100,000 if Orkin can show otherwise in the sentencing hearing that resumes Wednesday in U.S. District Court.

Judge James Turk convicted Atlanta-based Orkin in August of one misdemeanor count of failing to use a monitor to see that the Watsons’ home had been adequately aired out after the fumigation. Four other counts that allege the poison was misapplied were dismissed.

Orkin attorney Sam Wilson said Tuesday the company would show the failure to test the home with a monitor ″didn’t have anything to do with the Watsons’ deaths.″

Seven government witnesses have testified that sloppy corporate handling of a deadly chemical led to the deaths.

The fumigation of the Watson home was supervised by Ronald Dean Mullins, a former Orkin employee who said he had flunked a state certification test for fumigation but performed at least 30 of the procedures without ever using an air monitor, which is required on Vikane’s label.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Pierce asked Mullins if he had even read the instruction label before performing the fumigations, and Mullins said he had read only selected portions, including the manufacturer’s name.

″I didn’t read the fine print, though,″ said Mullins, who received immunity in exchange for his cooperation with the government.

Pierce also introduced a copy of Orkin’s fumigation manual and asked Mullins if he had ever read it.

″There’s a possibility that I might have looked through it, but I don’t recall,″ Mullins said.

The prosecutor asked about a fumigation checklist Orkin workers are supposed to fill out before each job.

″I’ve never filled one out,″ Mullins said.

Despite the safety problems, Mullins was kept on the job after being convicted of related charges in state court and being stripped of his state certification. For a time this year, Mullins was put in charge of Orkin’s Charlottesville office, though he left the company in October in what he described as a ″mutual understanding.″

An Orkin district manager who also received immunity for his testimony, Kenneth Keup, said the Watson fumigation should have been handled more carefully and that the safety checklist was supposed to have been filled out on each job.

″Orkin will freely acknowledge that this particular job was not done in accordance with its policies and procedures,″ Keup testified.

The deaths of the Watsons caused the company to change its handling of fumigations in Virginia, Keup said.

The Watsons daughters described how the once-vigorous couple became frail after spending a night in their home immediately after the fumigation. Mullins had testified that the Watsons’ bedroom had not been aired out with a fan, as had the other three floors of their home.

Donna Watson Wilson said her 73-year-old father ″more or less just shuffled along″ after he was poisoned. He died on Sept. 28, 1986, of heart and lung failure that forensic pathologist Dr. David Oxley said was brought on by a ″toxic agent″ he identified on the stand as Vikane.

Mrs. Wilson said her mother, 65, ″held her head in her hand a lot″ as her condition worsened before she died on Oct. 2, 1986, of the same causes. The family doctor, James G. Nuckolls, said Mrs. Watson’s fingers and lips had turned blue by the time she was hospitalized a day earlier.

Defense attorney James Jennings got Oxley to acknowledge that he did not mention Vikane as the toxic agent in the reports he wrote after examining the bodies.

Orkin President Bob Mercer, who sat at the defense table, did not comment on Tuesday’s proceedings.

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