As the pandemic hit Maine in early 2020, the supports holding Nicholas Mitchell’s life together were falling away, one after another.

Mitchell’s girlfriend, a hairstylist, lost her job when salons across the state were ordered shut. After one of their arguments, Mitchell, 39, was arrested for domestic violence assault and ordered to stay away from the apartment they shared with their two kids. Soon he was living in his car with no place to bathe. He was cut off from therapy after missing three phone appointments.

His attendance at work faltered, and in June 2020 he was fired by Scarborough-based pizza dough manufacturer It’ll Be Pizza. Angry to be jobless during a crisis, Mitchell took revenge.

When other shoppers weren’t looking, he inserted razor blades into his former employer’s raw balls of dough at Hannaford stores in New Hampshire and Maine, triggering a multistate recall.

That no one was harmed was just chance, Chief Judge Jon D. Levy said in U.S. District Court in Portland on Thursday as he sentenced Mitchell to four years and nine months in federal prison and ordered him to pay Hannaford $229,611.92 in restitution.

Mitchell, who recently contracted COVID-19 in the Cumberland County Jail despite being vaccinated, blamed the pandemic for destabilizing his life.

“I tried everything I could to steer the ship in the right direction,” he said before he was sentenced. “In a lot of ways, what I did was a cry for help, a cry for answers, a cry for all the chaos to stop, a cry for my simple, normal life back. My clouded and desperate strategy backfired and only brought more pain and suffering and confusion to myself and to everyone else here today.”

Mitchell’s attorney, David Beneman, a federal public defender, said his client’s debt will hang over him the rest of his life. Levy said the hefty sentence was a warning to the public and to Mitchell.

“This sentence has to send a firm message that anyone who is going to engage in conduct like this will spend a significant time in federal prison, and to send a message of deterrence to Mr. Mitchell that society will not tolerate him blowing up like this,” the judge said during the Zoom hearing.

Mitchell said that he had thought he would get caught and face a minor criminal charge that would let him ride out the COVID-19 pandemic from a jail cell. Instead, after customers found the razors, federal food safety officials descended on the region and teamed up with local police, and a multistate product recall cost the Hannaford supermarket chain the many thousands of dollars he must now repay.

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

Mitchell spoke tearfully and took responsibility for his actions. He said his target was not the general public.

“I think it’s very important to clarify here that my intentions were never to harm anybody, only to disrupt my former employer’s bottom line,” he said.

It’ll Be Pizza, which makes dough for various brands including Portland Pie Co. and Hannaford, did not submit a request for restitution.

Carrier

Nicholas Mitchell Dover Police Department via AP

Attempts to reach the company Thursday to find out why were unsuccessful.

But the actual financial impact of Mitchell’s crime is far higher than what he is being ordered to pay, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Perry said.

After his incarceration, Mitchell will be on supervised release for three years.

The debt likely will always be with him, his attorney said.

“As he tries to pay the rent, as he tries to reintegrate into society, as he tries to have transportation to get to work, every single paycheck an amount is going to be taken out,” Beneman said. “So this is something that will never end, even after incarceration.”

During the sentencing, Perry highlighted Mitchell’s extensive criminal history, including 26 prior convictions.

Most were nonviolent, but the prosecutor highlighted violent incidents involving his girlfriend and a case of road rage that Perry said showed Mitchell’s lack of self-control.

“Someone I guess ticked him off while he was driving, and he jumped out of a car and terrorized someone,” Perry said. “Mr. Mitchell does not care about the well-being of anyone else or what the law says he can do.”

TRAUMATIC UPBRINGING

Beneman wrote a pre-sentencing memo that said Mitchell had a deeply traumatic upbringing and never had strong, positive adult role models. He was abandoned by his mother and spent years in the state’s care, and was physically abused by adults and other children in the system. It was a childhood devoid of parental love, and Mitchell has been slowly learning how to live a stable life while recovering from substance use disorder, the attorney said.

Since Mitchell’s arrest, he and his longtime girlfriend have reconciled and they have vowed to stay together, the memo said. Although she was the alleged victim in Mitchell’s domestic assault case that began his spiral, she has since tried to convince state prosecutors to dismiss the charges, Beneman wrote.

As part of a federal plea deal in the tampering case, the state will dismiss charges of reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon and violating the conditions of his release. A second federal count of product tampering also has been dismissed.

After customers found razors and metal fragments in pizza dough they had purchased at the Saco Hannaford in early October, Hannaford stores in multiple states pulled the dough from refrigerated cases while authorities worked to track down the source. The case revealed shortcomings in Hannaford’s system for reporting dangerous or defective products, which the company acknowledged and said it has worked to correct.

Customers at the Hannaford in Sanford had reported finding razor blades and razor blade fragments in pizza dough two months before the Saco incident. But that information never made it up the corporate chain. At the time, Hannaford told police that a store employee who received reports of the contamination and took back the returned dough believed the problem was a product issue and not a public safety concern.

Police affidavits filed in court described how detectives linked Mitchell to the tampering at the Saco Hannaford through store surveillance video, which showed him entering the store, handling the dough and leaving without buying anything. They identified him by tracing his vehicle, and he was arrested soon after in New Hampshire.

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