Home > crime, Ferndale > Fernbridge Café Operator Faces Charges

Fernbridge Café Operator Faces Charges

[District Attorney press release.]

The Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office filed charges today against Steve Sterback, operator of the Fernbridge Market and Café. Sterback faces three counts of Operating a Food Facility Without a Valid Permit.

The County of Humboldt Division of Environmental Health requires a food facility permit at any facility where food is stored, prepared, packaged, served or otherwise provided, regardless of whether or not there is a charge for that food. Sterbeck was served a “Notice of Suspension of Food Facility Permit” by the Division of Environmental Health on March 18, 2011 after water tests confirmed high levels of coliform and E coli bacteria in the Café’s water. E coli indicates fecal contamination and can cause severe illness and in rare cases, death, in humans. After receiving the notice, Sterback was advised by county officials to immediately close the restaurant.

On March 31, 2011, the Café was still open and serving food to the public in direct violation of the suspension notice and Sterback was arrested and booked into the Humboldt County Correctional Facility.

Sterback was later released by the jail and is scheduled to be arraigned on April 19. If convicted on all counts, he faces up to eighteen months in jail, a fine of up to $3,000 or both.

“It is important to recognize that an arrest and criminal charges are not, in and of themselves, evidence of guilt,” noted Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos. “All people are entitled to a presumption of innocence. However, the District Attorney’s Office and the County’s Division of Environmental Health have an obligation to protect the citizens of this community and any visitors who patronize our local businesses. If an individual or business entity appears to be engaging in behavior that endangers people, we have to act to stop that behavior.”

Deputy District Attorney Christa McKimmy specializes in environmental and consumer protection and is prosecuting this case.

[Image source.]

  1. Decline To State
    April 11, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Well played! This man is a menace to his clients and needs to be removed from the restaurant business. I believe the county actually did try to work with him but in the end it’s his crappy, unrepentant attitude about this whole affair that sunk him.

  2. tra
    April 11, 2011 at 10:52 am

    I doubt he’ll be going to jail, I think it’s most likely that he’ll get probation. It is unfortunate that he chose to ignore the order to close and pushed things to the point where he ended up getting arrested and booked.

    Even if he thinks it was wrong for the Health Department to close them down, he should have complied and then appealed their decision. Ignoring the order allowed them to stay open a few more days, but in the end they had to close anyway, and now he’s got to fight the criminal charges as well as deal with the water issues.

    If what he wanted was to “get his day in court,” well, I guess he’s going to get it. But wouldn’t he have been better off if that day in court had featured him just challenging the Health Department’s order, without also having to defend himself from the criminal charges?

    I also notice that Gallegos seems to have tempered his language a bit, taking it down a notch or two from his “you might as well be drinking toilet water” theme at the time of the arrest. Maybe his office has been getting a few calls from Sterback’s friends and supporters?

  3. skippy
    April 11, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Decline to State and Tra make very good points.

    ” …the District Attorney’s Office and the County’s Division of Environmental Health have an obligation to protect the citizens… If an individual or business entity appears to be engaging in behavior that endangers people, we have to act to stop that behavior.”

    Fair enough. With the arrest and restaurant closure this point was well made– and driven home, one would think.

    “Sterback was later released by the jail and is scheduled to be arraigned on April 19. If convicted on all counts, he faces up to eighteen months in jail, a fine of up to $3,000 or both.”

    The maximun penalty, if given in full at disposition, seems draconian at best. Should this case be appropriately mediated before going to trial?

  4. anonymous
    April 11, 2011 at 11:12 am

    I wouldn’t want to see this guy go to jail. But he needed to stop what he was doing, comply with environmental health, and fix the problem with the restaurant’s water supply.

    It’s too bad, too. The place had excellent biscuits and gravy.

  5. Plain Jane
    April 11, 2011 at 11:13 am

    “The County of Humboldt Division of Environmental Health requires a food facility permit at any facility where food is stored, prepared, packaged, served or otherwise provided, regardless of whether or not there is a charge for that food.”

    And yet, even after his arrest, he invited people to come to his restaurant and fed them free of charge.

  6. Plain Jane
    April 11, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Maybe it was the rat feces that added flavor, 11:12.

  7. anonymous
    April 11, 2011 at 11:21 am

    It’s possible, I suppose – that, I hope not.

  8. tra
    April 11, 2011 at 11:47 am

    P.J. @ 11:15,

    I guess I’d better cancel the potluck I had planned for this weekend?

  9. Plain Jane
    April 11, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Do you consider your home a facility, Tra?

  10. tra
    April 11, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    My comment was offered in jest. But I do wonder how the County would define “facility.” For example, is a farm a “facility?” Arguably yes. If so, is it illegal, in the eyes of the County Health Department to have a potluck at a farm?

    Anyway, if what the owners of the market did after the arrest, was to invite folks over for free food, which was prepared elsewhere (for example pizza from Rio Dell) and didn’t serve any water from their suspect water system, then I don’t see how anyone’s health was endangered by doing that.

  11. Anonymousoverandover
    April 11, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    If they don’t own the building and aren’t the ones responsible to fix the well water, and they tried to comply by using bottled water, what was the big deal?

  12. Anonymous
    April 11, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Well, tra, I hope no one washed their hands in the sink, used tap water to mop floors, etc. I won’t even speculate about the rat droppings and what kind of environmental risk such an atmosphere may contain.

  13. Anonymous
    April 11, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    The big deal is that “using bottled water” doesn’t meet the legal requirement. The place was filthy and the water was contaminated. They were ordered to shut down and they carried on as though they were perfectly entitled to do so.

  14. Anonymousoverandover
    April 11, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    You know for a fact that the place was filthy, or are you just listening to heresay?

  15. Anonymous
    April 11, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    A community that tolerates filth in its restaurants will soon be relegated to the ash heap of history.

  16. Anonymous
    April 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Health department reports are hardly hearsay. What a silly thing to say.

  17. Anonymousoverandover
    April 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    I thought it was the reporter’s assessment. Old buildings can look pretty dirty and not be unclean as much as old. I hear there are two sides to this story. Just looking for the other one.

  18. QP
    April 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    The other side of the story is there’s this guy who hates government regs.
    See, he doesn’t have to follow the rules like everyone else does. He’s a badass and told the county health dept to go fk themselves.
    Oops.

  19. Anonymous
    April 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Inspection reports dating back to 2004 note flies, rotting food, greasy floors, ingredients kept in unsafe conditions and food stored on prep tables at unsafe temperatures. Numerous reports also note the presence of rodent droppings in the kitchen.
    ”Floors in bakery are very soiled; old rodent droppings present,” one report from October 2009 states, advising the operators to “clean and sanitize this area so it can be monitored for recent rodent infestations.”

    How is that the “reporter’s assessment” of the conditions of the place? Unless you’re suggesting that the reporter made up what is contained within numerous health inspector’s reports?

  20. Anonymousoverandover
    April 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Reporters write what they perceive to be the problem, and are not always unbiased. I am not on anyone’s “side”, just trying to hear some truths. I believe the health inspector’s report, but reporters often slant the truth.

  21. skippy
    April 14, 2011 at 8:39 am

    The Times-Standard today reported
    “The Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office has offered a plea deal to Fernbridge Cafe owner Steve Sterback, the office reported Wednesday. Sterback was arrested March 31 for three misdemeanor charges related to his refusal to close the business after water tests showed high levels of E. coli bacteria.”

    “The plea involves Sterback agreeing to plead guilty to any of the three counts and would include probation.”

    Accept the plea deal avoiding the expense and trouble of going to trial? Accept a grant of probation and the conditions thereof? Will the probation status be unsupervised by the DA’s office (routine for misdemeanor cases)– or unlikely supervised conditional release by the Probation Department (usually reserved for for felony cases)? Will these conditions require remediations for the restaurant’s water system, or ultimately force closure or sale? Will probationary status limit the moving out of state? What other conditions would be imposed?

    Take the sticky buns to the trial oven– or grab the sticky wicket plea deal simmering on the front burner?

  22. skippy
    April 14, 2011 at 8:42 am

    There’s a few questions to be answered and decisions to be made.
    Best of luck and good wishes to you.

  23. Anonymous
    May 13, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Anyone been out to Fernbridge lately? The cafe is now painted like an American flag. That’s a better use of funds than meeting Health Department codes, for sure!

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