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Honey executive handed not-so-sweet prison sentence

Updated: October 5, 2012 6:08PM

When federal authorities swooped to arrest a young German honey executive just moments before she boarded an international flight out of O’Hare Airport in 2008, they made a crucial break in what they heralded as the largest food customs case ever charged.

But four and a half years after Stefanie Giesselbach’s arrest for her relatively minor role in an $80 million tax scam, she on Friday became the last of just a handful of the 15 alleged co-conspirators to be sentenced to prison time. While Giesselbach is soon due to begin a year and a day prison term, all of the major players who directed the scam remain at large abroad, beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement, authorities say. And cases against all six companies behind the scam have been dropped.

In court Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Boutros said that Giesselbach’s cooperation was key to prosecutors’ understanding of how German food conglomerate Alfred L. Wolff imported honey tainted with illegal antibiotics and pretended Chinese honey was from Indonesia, Russia, Malaysia and elsewhere in an attempt to dodge customs taxes. More than 2,400 drums of honey were seized during the probe, and the large scale dumping of cheap honey hurt domestic honey producers’ business, authorities said.

Though Giesselbach, 34, played an important role in the Chicago office of Wolff’s import business and knew what she was doing was illegal, she was following orders sent from overseas, evidence showed. Her attorney, James Marcus, described her as a “puppet” of her German employers.

Addressing Judge Amy St. Eve, Giesselbach said she knew she had only herself to blame, but asked to be spared prison so that she could return to Germany, marry her boyfriend and start a family. St. Eve said Giesselbach seemed “genuinely remorseful” but noted that the tainted honey could have caused a serious public health issue, saying a one-year sentence was necessary to discourage similar scams.

Giesselbach was the last of five defendants to be sentenced. Fellow German immigrant Magnus Von Buddenbrock was sentenced to six months home confinement, while Chinese nationals Shu Bei Yuan and Yong Xiang Yan, and Taiwanese national Hung Ta Fan were each sentenced to jail terms between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half years.

Eight German and Chinese defendants — including the scam’s ringleaders — are all fugitives who will likely only face trial if they travel to a country that extradites for fraud cases.

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