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Santa Ana bakery closed, investigation begun after patrons become ill

and Contact Reporter
More than 40 customers of Cholula's Bakery in Santa Ana become ill after eating holiday bread

For years, Cholula's Bakery has been part of the fabric of the dense immigrant neighborhood along the railroad tracks in Santa Ana.

There are colorful pastries for quinceañeras and graduations, trays of doughy Mexican sweet bread, and during the holidays the wreath-like three kings bread — rosca de reyes — is in constant demand.

But now the bakery has been closed and a criminal investigation opened after more than 40 customers reportedly became ill — some hallucinating, some doubled over in pain — after eating the holiday bread that celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men.

Police who have collected samples said the bread, which is distributed to other stores in Orange County and Long Beach, was laced with a synthetic form of marijuana. Health records show Cholula has a history of hygiene-related violations, and there are no immediate plans for reopening the business.

Still, the bakery's closure has interrupted a long-running relationship with residents and workers along 17th Street, a boulevard jammed with taquerias, discount stores and auto body shops.

"Every day, I stop by to drink coffee and eat bread, and everything tastes just great," said Efrain Quintanilla, a line server at Hometown Buffet, the largest business in the strip mall where the bakery has operated for more than 14 years. "I come in, I watch the soccer games, and it's like I'm spending time with a friend."

Rosi Cazarez, a waitress, said she's concerned that rumors and speculation have outpaced the facts.

"It's unfair that this is happening and that it could hurt a local family business," said Cazarez, who says she bought a $25 rosca for her family and that nobody became ill.

"They're my neighbors, and I want them to do well."

Liverio Ramirez, who said he spent a year at Cholula's mixing ingredients and washing dishes, said he recalls that the owners were strict about sanitation.

The workers at a nearby nail salon, he said, would come in to buy bread for their altar to Buddha, and children and their mothers would return again and again for the concha, Cholula's best-selling sweet bread with irresistible candy icing.

But Gerardo Ramirez, the manager of a market in Orange that sells breads from the Santa Ana bakery, said he was among the dozens who were sickened. His father and four of his co-workers became ill as well, he said.

Ramirez, 26, said he ordered a special cake, one filled with raisins, walnuts and guava jelly, that he shared with his employees one afternoon. He said he later became dizzy and headed home with his father.

A short distance from the store, Ramirez said, he became so disoriented that he pulled over to let his father drive. He said his mouth was dry and his heart pounding. By the time they got home, he said, his father felt similar sensations.

Ramirez said he called the market and told them to take the holiday bread off the shelves. He remembered that a cashier had become ill the day before after snacking on samples.

Fidelina Solis said she became so sick after eating the bread that she could barely walk and her skin tingled.

"You cannot talk at all," she said. "Inside your body is fighting."

She went to the doctor, who told her she was suffering from anxiety and sent her home. She ate a piece of the bread the next day, along with the other employees, and said she fell ill once again.

"I thought, 'I'm going to die,'" she said.

Regulars of the bakery said they were unaware anything was amiss until the shop suddenly closed. Several days later, the owners put up a message on Facebook saying they were working with health department officials to resolve the problem.

"Again, we are apologetic and in a way ashamed this happened to our customers," the post read.

Before police announced Thursday that the contaminant had been identified as a "synthetic cannabinoid," theories abounded on what had made so many people sick.

Ramirez said tests at the hospital where he went that evening revealed the presence of methamphetamine in his urine. The Orange County Register reported that it obtained a sample of the tainted bread and that a lab it hired determined it was "spice" — a powerful synthetic form of marijuana. And a Los Angeles-area food consultant, Jeff Nelken, suggested the culprit might even be the plastic Jesus figurine that is inserted into each of the cakes.

Cholula's distributed the rosca to 10 stores in Orange County and Long Beach. Many of the adults who consumed the bread reported dizziness and numbness, symptoms not typically associated with common food poisoning, officials said.

Online records from the last two years show county inspectors cited the business for more than 30 violations, including improper hand-washing and incorrect holding temperatures.

Police said they are continuing to investigate and have not determine whether the bread was deliberately laced with drugs. Health officials said the bakery was inspected Thursday, a process that will be repeated next week.

Liverio Ramirez, the former employee, believes Cholula's will bounce back.

"It will take time, but their stuff is delicious," he said. "We will eat more sweets."

anh.do@latimes.com

emily.foxhall@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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