REEDLEY – This November, Jesalyn Harper will receive the Code Enforcement Officer of the Year award from the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers (CACEO) for her role in exposing Prestige Biotech, Inc. and its illegal lab located at 850 I Street.
The lab, the investigation, the countless interviews, the award – not bad for someone who just celebrated her first year on the job with the city.
“Last week was my anniversary,” Harper said, laughing.
CACEO’s mission is to promote and advance the profession of code enforcement as it serves and supports its members with comprehensive education and certification in the field amongst other services, according to the CACEO website. It is the only organization that advocates exclusively for code enforcement officers in the state.
Harper is local. She grew up in Yokuts Valley, formerly known as Squaw Valley, and graduated from Sanger High School. She lives in Sanger.
After she graduated from high school, she wanted to go into criminal justice but could not find any college opportunities at the time; so she bounced around a bit. She previously worked as a hospice caregiver and then in a foster care facility for disabled children.
“I had my fingers in different types of government work, but I wasn’t fully in the public sector,” she said.
Because of Harper’s aptitude with technology, a friend suggested she apply for an admin job with the city of Fresno. The job was with the code enforcement division.
TIME IN FRESNO
Harper began in the code enforcement division in 2018 and stayed for over two years. During that period, she did mostly administrative tasks.
“When I was an admin in Fresno, I did a lot of paperwork,” she said. “I did all the paperwork for violations for marijuana grows. The highest citation was $2.8 million.”
Harper said despite the fact marijuana is legal in the state, there are still a lot of people who refuse to play by the rules.
“It’s legal for personal use,” said Harper. “But what happens is you find a house that has been completely gutted on the inside and rewired with no permits and they’re growing between 200 to 300 hundred plants.”
She said growers use marijuana to disguise more dangerous drugs, such as fentanyl and heroin.
“And a lot of illegal marijuana is now usually laced with illegal drugs,” she said. “They can move those other drugs with the marijuana. That is something code enforcement has been struggling with.” She said code enforcement officers are trained in the use of chemicals that can detect the presence of these more powerful drugs in marijuana.
Harper left Fresno because she wanted to be cross trained in other departments.
“When you’re in Fresno, it is such a large organization that the ability to cross train is virtually impossible. I specifically went to Sanger to be able to cross train in planning, building, engineering – everything,” Harper said.
SANGER, LOS BANOS, REEDLEY
Harper received significant cross training when she worked in Sanger. She became a permit technician.
“I got really immersed in the building department,” she said. “That’s my bread and butter in code enforcement. I can identify and remediate building violations.”
She left Sanger for better pay in Los Banos, but the commute was too much.
“Three hours each day,” she said. “Worse if I didn’t plan the 99 traffic right.”
She accepted the full-time code enforcement officer job with Reedley last year. She is the only full-time officer; a part-time officer only works on weekends.
TALL WEEDS AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING
“I tell people, ‘If you think code enforcement is about writing citations for non-permitted yard sales, you’re in for a rude awakening,’” Harper said.
Yes, Harper confirmed she does respond to complaints about overgrown weeds, trash in front yards, portable basketball hoops blocking gutters and other mundane calls; but that is not the extent of it.
“We deal with stuff from biolabs to clandestine labs. If I get a call from the police department that we found a meth lab in a house, we have building violations. Chemical violations. I could be called in to remediate that part,” she said.
Another thing is human trafficking. She said some activities seen in a person’s day-to-day life can mask sinister enterprises. One example of this could be a mobile vendor. Harper explained that, in some cases, a person selling oranges might think they are making a living by selling fruit for their handler; however, it will turn out that this seller is being charged for things like the oranges, for gas, for housing, for food, etc. by their handler.
“At the end of the day, they’re losing money even if they sell all of the oranges,” Harper said. “The goal isn’t for them to pay off the money and be free. The goal is for them to be in indentured service. It’s slavery.”
She said it is the same fraud perpetuated across multiple industries. The perpetrators prey on individuals, mostly young women, who want to come to the U.S. These individuals pay for visas and green cards. They upfront all of the costs. They explain to the parents the young women will pay off the debt as they work.
“What the parents don’t realize is once their daughters get there, they (criminals) take their documents, they keep all their money until they pay it off. They will send them to people’s houses to be caregivers, and when they’re not working, they go back to the office; they’re living in the basement as slaves,” said Harper.
A VIEW FROM INSIDE THE LAB
By now, most people are aware of Harper’s discovery of the infamous garden hose on Dec. 19, which ultimately led to an open door that led to Harper entering the warehouse on 850 I Street. This then led to her discovery of the mice, the infectious agents, the refrigerators which led to the opening of Pandora’s Box, the ramifications of which are still ongoing. But few people know what it was like inside the warehouse.
“That garden hose was the saving grace,” Harper said. “Because where they put it meant I had to walk through everything to locate the hose. I had to go by the refrigerators. I had to go by the mice. Everything to get to that back wall to look at the garden hose.”
Harper said she believes the Prestige workers expected her to inform them they had to reattach the hose to the building and then Harper would leave.
“Of course, that’s not how it went down,” she said.
It was later determined there were four Prestige employees onsite but Harper said she only saw three. These three employees walked her through the warehouse.
“They explained what they were doing,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t the truth but I let them feel like they were deceiving me.”
There were thousands of items. Boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. There were boxes of COVID and pregnancy tests.
“From the moment I found this lab until now, this has been an educational journey,” Harper said. “I didn’t know how COVID tests were made prior to this.”
AND THE MICE
The mice were not genetically modified. COVID tests require antibody reactions to determine a positive or negative result. The lab mice were used to cultivate antibodies.
“I found out from our consulting veterinarian this is a very common lab practice in the U.S. for harvesting antibody cells,” Harper said.
But Harper said there was no indication the workers in the I Street lab were conducting these procedures. Which explained why the mice were in such poor condition.
“They were just moved to Reedley, like all the other stuff in the lab,” said Harper. She added that mice used in labs are maintained under very tight restrictions.
“They test them regularly and if they do, by some chance, become infected with a common disease, they will euthanize all of the mice because they are no longer valid. They are not pure,” Harper said.
Harper mentioned colony management. This is the system researchers employ to ensure conditions are optimal for conducting experiments. She said colony management includes selective breeding. This practice includes separating males from females; separating babies once they reach a certain age.
“There was absolutely zero colony management being done to the mice,” said Harper.
This resulted in the horrible condition of the mice in the Reedley warehouse.
“This was our first sign the mice were starving,” Harper said. “The lack of pinkies, the babies. The barbering. Being housed in tight cages. These were all signs of the lack of colony management.”
Harper added she only learned of colony management this past May.
“I didn’t know this in February or March,” she said.
THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES
Harper said the complete lack of oversight over privately funded labs terrifies her.
“This should be terrifying to people,” she said.
She mentioned the 1984 incident in Oregon where the Rajneeshee religious sect poisoned over 750 people with salmonella they cultivated in a lab on their compound.
“And here’s the thing,” she said. “It was a private lab. They were allowed to cultivate salmonella for research and development. There was nothing anyone could do about it because it was considered a level two biosafety lab.”
Harper said she was losing sleep over the fact there is no federal oversight for some private labs, including the Prestige lab.
But good news has come from this. Harper is in the process of creating a curriculum for code enforcement officers on how to identify a lab, on how to identify what type of a lab it is, how to keep officers safe when they investigate and what resources are available to assist with the investigation.
“We will continue to find these labs,” she said. “Until we have a designated authority that has the ability to go after them, we (code enforcement officers) are the only line of defense to find them. No one else is going into warehouses. No one else is catching these red flags.”