Undercover sting nabs California mother selling ceviche through Facebook group

Mariza Ruelas and her family. Photo / Mariza Ruelas
Mariza Ruelas and her family. Photo / Mariza Ruelas

Mariza Ruelas never expected a plate of ceviche would lead her to the court house and maybe even a possible jail sentence.

For more than a year, undercover investigators in San Joaquin County, California tracked the sales of food - such as homemade tamales, tortillas and cakes - through a community Facebook group, a sting that Mariza Ruelas called a "waste of time and resources and taxpayers' money".

Ruelas, a single mother of six, first came across the Facebook group about two years ago when she needed a last-minute cake for her daughter's quinceañera, the Hispanic coming-of-age celebration on a young woman's 15th birthday.

The community forum, 209 Food Spot, allowed Stockton, California residents to share recipes, organise potlucks and occasionally sell or exchange food items.

As a hobby, about once a month, Ruelas began offering up her own dishes - a tray of rice and beans in exchange for a birthday cake, her staple chicken-stuffed avocados to those who requested it, she said in a phone interview with the Post.

Then, in July, she received a letter in the mail: she was being summoned to court. Ruelas, along with several other group members, faced citations for two misdemeanours - operating a food facility and engaging in business without a permit. An undercover investigator had ordered a ceviche from her through the Facebook group in October 2015 as part of a sting.

At least a half-dozen other members accepted a plea deal of one year of probation, a $235 fine and 40 hours of community service. Ruelas was offered a deal with twice the community service, three years of probation and the $235 fine, so she refused to accept it, she said.

The single mother of six is headed to trial and faces up to a year in jail for her misdemeanours.

"We didn't see any harm in that," she said, of selling and exchanging meals through the group. "There wasn't anybody selling it daily. A lot of times, they were just getting back what they put into the ingredients."

She hadn't ever looked into obtaining a permit, Ruelas said, because she only sold or exchanged food items once or twice a month at most, as a hobby on occasional weekends. It was an activity she enjoyed sharing with her children, ages 6 through 20, who would help prepare and deliver some of the dishes with her.

Sometimes, during the holidays, Ruelas and her children would donate the meals to the homeless, Ruelas said.

"The purpose wasn't to sell food," Ruelas said. "We wanted to bring something positive to our community." She mentioned Stockton's high crime and soaring homicide rates.

"They took the time to be investigating for over a year now," she said of her case. "But they can't solve all these unsolved murders?"

Kelly McDaniel, the San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney, told the local Fox affiliate that the 209 Food Spot Facebook group was sent a warning before charges were filed. She added that selling any food not subject to health department inspection is a danger to the public and undercuts business owners who purchase permits to cook and sell food.

"People are assuming that I was taking from other businesses," Ruelas said. "It's not something that I was trying to make a business out of."

Ruelas has been out of work for two years, for personal reasons and to care for her children. After paying rent, electricity, water and other monthly bills, she only has $200 per month left for food and necessary shopping, she said. Simply paying the $235 fine for her misdemeanours would be a blow to her family's finances.

Although she rarely earned much of an income from the food sales through the Facebook group, she occasionally received useful items - such as clothes for the kids - in exchange for food. When a neighbour knew she needed furniture for her home, he offered to give her family couches in exchange for a home-cooked meal.

"I have two kids that are going to have a birthday party next week and I have no idea what I'm going to do about it," she said.

On Sunday, Ruelas posted a message from her 17-year-old daughter, Mariyah, on Facebook. She said she didn't want to be home when her mother made phone calls to her lawyer or to reporters about the case. It scared her, she wrote, thinking about her mom going to jail and leaving her and her siblings without a parent.

"That's just sad," Ruelas wrote in the Facebook post. "I need this done already so we can just breathe."

- Washington Post

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