The California woman who sold an undercover investigator ceviche through Facebook deserves her possible jail sentence, prosecutors said Monday.
Stockton single mom Mariza Ruelas, 37, faces two misdemeanor charges of operating a food facility and engaging in business without a permit. The rap carries up to a year behind bars, and jail would be merited if she’s found guilty, San Joaquin Chief Deputy District Attorney Sherri Adams said.
Adams told the Daily News she “highly” doubts that Ruelas would end up receiving the maximum sentence. Yet she noted the investigation into a 15,000-member local Facebook group called 209 Food Spot stemmed from concerns around state laws involving both health and business.
“The bigger issue is the health and safety. They could be cooking it out of the garage and having absolutely no cleanliness,” Adams said. “There’s a lot more to some of these businesses than, ‘I’m just making food for my friends.’”
Adams said the county’s Environmental Health Department alerted the D.A.’s office that members of the group were selling one or two dishes at a time. The undercover investigator made 10 purchases, and authorities filed the same rap last year for all the users who sold food, she said.
Yet Ruelas revealed to a local TV station on Friday that she is the only one of them who has declined so far to take a plea deal from prosecutors. She acted as the administrator of the group, which shared recipes, organized potlucks and occasionally resulted in the sales between members.
Mariza Ruelas poses with four of her children. She says she was charged with a crime just for participating in a community Facebook group about food.
Ruelas, a mother of six whose father is from the Mexican coastal state of Colima, told the News she received a message from the undercover agent last December. He was asking her about her ceviche, a classic Latin American seafood dish and a specialty family recipe of hers.
“He just contacted me and said he was interested,” Ruelas said, noting she was asking $12 for the dish. “I just said, ‘I have a couple left over that I can sell you if you’d like.’”
Supporters who saw her story on social media plan to rally Wednesday outside the courthouse in the suburban Bay Area city, Ruelas said. She wrote on her GoFundMe page, which had raised over $1,400 by Monday afternoon. that she plans to consider opening a small restaurant after her case is over.
She just thinks the prosecutor’s office could have used its resources for better purposes, she said.
“They have hundreds of unsolved murders. There’s shootings daily,” Ruelas said. “It was outrageous that they would focus so much time. It was very upsetting.”
Ruelas provided this picture of her ceviche, a family recipe and one of her specialties. She said the undercover investigator wanted to buy one serving for $12.
She rejected prosecutors’ offer of three years of probation, a $235 fine and community service in part because other people from the group received just one year of probation, she said. Yet Adams said she got an offer with the longer term because she kept selling food on Facebook.
“Even after being charged, she continued to offer food,” Adams said. “There’s a lot more to her story than she’s revealing.”
Ruelas denied that she kept trying to sell her food, and she said the group has long since shut down. She doesn’t even know what happened to the ceviche in question, she said.
“Omg that’s what I asked my lawyer if he can find out!” she wrote in a Facebook message. “I hope he at least gave it to a homeless guy along with all the other food he bought from the other people.”