Pennsylvania coughing ‘prank’ suspect arrested, charged after $35G in groceries tossed

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Authorities in Pennsylvania have identified the suspect accused of coughing on an estimated $35,000 worth of grocery store products in what they say was a “twisted prank” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Margaret Cirko, 35, was arrested and charged with terrorist threats Thursday, one day after she allegedly entered Gerrity’s Supermarket in Hanover Township, made verbal threats that she was sick, and intentionally coughed and spat on fresh produce and other items, according to the Hanover Township Police Department.

Cirko, known for past problems in the community, continued the behavior in several aisles, police said, adding that she tried to steal a 12 pack of beer before being ordered to leave the store.

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“I am also absolutely sick to my stomach about the loss of food,” Joe Fasula, the store’s co-owner, wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “While it is always a shame when food is wasted, in these times when so many people are worried about the security of our food supply, it is even more disturbing.”

Fasula said Cirko coughed on the store’s fresh produce as well as portions of its bakery, meat case, and grocery shelves in what he called “a twisted prank.”

Margaret Ann Cirko sits in a police car after her arrest Thursday in Hanover Township, Pa. (Associated Press)

Margaret Ann Cirko sits in a police car after her arrest Thursday in Hanover Township, Pa. (Associated Press)

Cirko wasn’t believed to be infected with the coronavirus, but the store said it had no choice but to throw away “well over” $35,000 in product.

“Today was a very challenging day,” Fasula said. “While there is little doubt this woman was doing it as a very twisted prank, we will not take any chances with the health and well-being of our customers.”

Margaret Ann Cirko sits in a police car after her arrest Thursday in Hanover Township, Pa. (Associated Press)

Margaret Ann Cirko sits in a police car after her arrest Thursday in Hanover Township, Pa. (Associated Press)

After the incident, Fasula said, the store worked with Hanover’s health inspector to identify every area the suspect was in. The co-owner added they disposed of the products and then “thoroughly” cleaned and disinfected the store.

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He said the “only silver lining to this travesty” was that the incident allowed the store to test its safety protocols. More than 15 employees were involved in disposal and clean-up efforts, he added.

Joe Fasula restocks shelves at Gerrity's in Hanover Township, Pa., after suspect Margaret Ann Cirko allegedly coughed on $35,000 worth of produce and meat. (Associated Press)

Joe Fasula restocks shelves at Gerrity’s in Hanover Township, Pa., after suspect Margaret Ann Cirko allegedly coughed on $35,000 worth of produce and meat. (Associated Press)

After the incident, Hanover police said in a news release that Cirko was undergoing a mental health evaluation at a local hospital. Police added they were working on getting her tested for COVID-19.

She was eventually arrested and charged with two felony counts of terrorist threats, one felony count of threats to use a “biological agent” and one felony count of criminal mischief. She also faces misdemeanor counts of criminal attempt to commit retail theft and disorderly conduct, police said.

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Cirko was arraigned Thursday with her bail set at $50,000. She was being held at Luzerne County Prison and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 8, police said.

Magisterial District Judge Joseph A. Halesey arraigns Margaret Ann Cirko Thursday in Hanover Township, Pa. (Associated Press)

Magisterial District Judge Joseph A. Halesey arraigns Margaret Ann Cirko Thursday in Hanover Township, Pa. (Associated Press)

Fasula later posted an update on Facebook describing the incident as “an eventful two days for our family business.” He said the produce department was fully restocked by 2 p.m. Thursday.

The co-owner added he was humbled by the outpouring of support from the community and shared a list of critical guidelines for customers visiting “any grocery store.”

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He labeled rule No. 8, “Don’t cough on anything.”

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