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Public school cook cleared of poisoning soup

A kitchen porter at a £27,000-a-year public school was acquitted yesterday of trying to poison pupils by lacing their soup with cleaning fluid.

Maxwell Cook, 58, was accused of pouring drain cleaner into carrot and coriander soup that was destined for 100 pupils and staff at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire. But he was found not guilty at Aylesbury Crown Court of attempting to administer poison with intent to injure, aggrieve or annoy. He slumped back in his chair looking relieved as the verdict was given. The jury took two-and-a-half hours to acquit him.

According to prosecutors, the substance would have had a "detrimental effect" if eaten, including vomiting and swelling of the throat. Mr Cook, from Syresham, Northamptonshire, was suspended from his post after the contaminated food was discovered on 11 March last year, and will not get his job back. A spokeswoman for the school said: "The school undertook a full investigation immediately after the soup incident and in accordance with our disciplinary procedures, Maxwell Cook was dismissed for gross misconduct. The school has no intention of re-employing him."

During the trial, trainee chef Louise Samples told the court that she saw Mr Cook pour cleaning fluid into the soup, but was shocked and did not feel comfortable enough to say anything. She said: "I was still processing what had happened. As a woman on my own in the kitchen, I didn't feel comfortable to approach [Mr Cook]. I knew the chef would taste it before it was served... As a trainee I didn't feel I was in a strong enough position to approach Max at this time."

Mr Cook maintained he had walked past the soup but had only looked at it. His barrister, Henry James, asked Ms Samples whether in fact she had poisoned the soup to discredit another trainee chef with whom she was competing for a job. She denied this.

The fluid was detected during routine tasting and nobody was harmed.