Reedley assures public of city’s part in lab investigation

Nicole Zieba declares the city did its due diligence in the face of an investigation on an illegal lab in Reedley as residents display skepticism, distrust in the city’s handling of the situation

Councilmember Mary Fast asks questions regarding the Bio Lab investigation. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published August 10, 2023  • 
10:00 am

FRESNO COUNTY – City Manager Nicole Zieba told a packed council chamber that, from the moment the city learned of the existence of the illegal lab at 850 I Street, the city embarked on a vigorous campaign to uncover any threats to Reedley residents and to hold the “bad actors” accountable. However, this statement did not ring true with every member of the public who attended the meeting.

Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba briefs the council and public on the status of the Bio Lab investigation. (Kenny Goodman)

Speaking from the public podium during the Reedley City Council meeting on Aug. 8, Zieba provided the council with a chronology of the city’s actions following the discovery of the lab last fall.

“The process began within days,” Zieba said. “We did notify the federal authorities and reached out for assistance.”

At the conclusion of the chronology, Zieba said Reedley succeeded in stopping Prestige where others failed.

“Reedley is a little David that took down Goliath,” Zieba said.

She also mentioned December 21, 2022 as a pivotal date in the overall timeline of the investigation of the building. She said this is when the Fresno County Health Department and city of Reedley were told by their partners with the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the situation needed to be kept under wraps as a federal investigation was conducted on the lab.

“I wasn’t even allowed to tell you (council), as you well know now,” Zieba said.

In an earlier interview with the Times, Zieba said, “It’s not wise to defy federal authorities. For me as a city manager, I’d rather not spend time in a federal prison.”

THE PUBLIC WEIGHS IN

During the public comments portion of the meeting, the council heard differing opinions from the public regarding how Zieba and the council handled the situation.

“This was absolutely textbook handing,” Reedley resident John Powell said. Powell told the council he formerly worked for the University of California police department. 

Reedley resident and former investigator John Powell praises the council and city manager for their handling of the Bio Lab investigation. (Kenny Goodman)

“This was a case study in local response,” he added. “They (Prestige) could have taken those mice out in a bag and thrown them in someone’s field and we never would have known about them. Or the FBI could have taken over and none of us would have heard about it.”

Not all public comments were complimentary of the city’s response.

Reedley resident Mari Garcia expresses her displeasure with City Manager Zieba and how she approved the Bio Lab investigation. (Kenny Goodman)

“What you did was wrong and dishonest,” resident Mari Garcia said. Speaking to Zieba, she added, “We can’t trust you. You need to resign.” This statement elicited applause from many residents who remained outside the chambers due to lack of seating.

Resident Angela Griffiths peppered the council with questions.

“The blood products that were there. Where did they come from?” Griffiths said. “Who did they come from? Was there mutagenicity going on in these rats (mice), in your community? In our community?” 

Griffiths added, “Are we going to receive a complete list of all the pathogens they removed from the lab? We have a right to know. How would you, as a city council going through this now, feeling like you were caught blind – because you were – how would you advise other small towns or large ones, because they’ll go where they can hide, how would you advise them to prepare for this?”

Shelley Freeman expressed her dissatisfaction with the council for not choosing a larger venue to host the meeting and her concerns about the blood samples found in the warehouse. 

“I think you did a great disservice to your community by not having a facility large enough for them to ask questions of you,” Freeman said. “And to not have a press release? This just doesn’t affect Reedley or California; it affects the United States. Where did the blood come from? Did the blood come from aborted fetuses from Planned Parenthood? We all know that Planned Parenthood is using fetuses for medical research.”

Reedley resident Robert Baylox, who also criticized the council for holding the meeting in too small of a venue, gave the city a mixed review for its handling of the situation.

“A lot of things were handled properly but a lot of things were not,” Baylox said. “The Chinese government is in our face. Intimidating (us). Actually, destroying property and being where they shouldn’t be. Chinese nationals don’t come to the U.S. without their marching orders. That’s just the name of the game. I feel a lot of things were missed.”

But Reda Bannai said the city should be congratulated for how it resolved the situation.

“I congratulate (the) city of Reedley for amazing, exemplary and professional work for handling this situation that truly should have been handled at the federal level,” Bannai said. “To see a city municipality handling the situation the way they have done? I am a proud resident of Reedley.”

THE COUNCIL WEIGHS IN

The Times reached out to Reedley Mayor Anita Betancourt and council members for their comments. Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Tuttle responded.

“I am a citizen of Reedley and the emotional side of me agrees that I had a right to know,” Tuttle said. “But in the totality of circumstances and in real time, I feel the route that was taken was the best one that could have been made at the time.”

Tuttle explained that if the public knew about the circumstance early-on, it would have not only jeopardized the overall investigation, but it also could have increased the likelihood of dangerous biologicals in the lab being tampered with.

“Notifying the public early on, I feel, would have put the community’s safety in more of a risk than the opposite,” Tuttle said.

NO ONE SAW?

Freeman remained dubious that the city did not know what was happening in the warehouse.

“My last question comes from someone outside,” she said. “They ask, ‘When someone is having a garage sale, you know when they don’t have a permit. When they’re watering their lawns on the wrong day, you guys know they’re watering on the wrong day.’”

Reedley Code Enforcement Officer Jesalyn Harper briefs the council and public on her finds and the abatement of the Bio Lab. (Kenny Goodman)

Despite Zieba’s description of Prestige as bad actors coming in and setting up shop under the cover of night, the sheer volume of materials removed from the warehouse raises the question of how the efforts of relocating 22 dumpster worth of materials went unnoticed. According to Code Enforcement Officer Jesalyn Harper, this is how much material the city removed from the warehouse.

A BRIEF CHRONOLOGY

Under mysterious circumstances, the lab owner Universal MediTech – later called Prestige Biotech, Inc. – moved the contents of its Fresno lab to Reedley. According to Joe Prado, assistant director of Fresno County Department of Public Health (FCDPH), the county began investigating Prestige Nov. 1, 2022 following a complaint from the City of Fresno Code Enforcement and the City Fire Department regarding chemicals stored at Prestige’s lab located at 1320 E. Fortune Ave.

FCDPH returned to the Fortune Avenue location three more times in November. Prado said staff’s last visit to the lab was Nov. 23. They were unable to contact Universal. Prado added that there were no cars in the parking lot.

Reedley’s official involvement with Prestige and the lab at 850 I Street began Dec. 19, 2022. Following Harper’s discovery of a garden hose that had been inserted through a back wall of the warehouse, code enforcement officials entered the site. 

“I was looking for building code violations,” Harper said. 

Following discussions with local, state and federal agencies beginning late December and continuing through the end of February 2023, Reedley officials obtained a warrant to legally enter the premises on Mar. 3, 2023. FCDPH staff joined Reedley city officials for a walk through and inspection of the warehouse.

Officials returned to the site four times during March to execute various warrants. On April 11, the remaining living mice in the warehouse were euthanized. On April 21, FCDPH issued the first of three Health Officer Orders.

On June 26, Fresno Superior Court issued a comprehensive abatement warrant for the facility. From July 5-7, health officials began removing biological materials from over 30 refrigerators and freezers inside the warehouse. These materials were subsequently transported offsite and destroyed.

Darren Fraser
Reporter