Updated May 3, 2021 - 11:17 am
Las Vegas-based Real Water, the focus of an ongoing U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation into liver illnesses, hired a man with almost no experience in the business to oversee testing at one of its Southern Nevada bottling plants.
When the pandemic struck and businesses closed across the valley, Casey Aiken lost his job as a strip club promoter and was forced to look for new work. In June, he landed a job at Real Water’s since-closed plant on Desert Inn Road that paid $10 an hour, loading bottled water onto pallets to be shipped out for home deliveries.
He knew nothing about the company.
“Never heard of it, never drank it, never seen it,” Aiken, 40, told lawyers during a videotaped deposition in late March in connection with at least 10 civil complaints that have been filed against Real Water.
In the past two months, dozens of people who reported being hospitalized with liver failure after drinking Real Water have sued, as the FDA and Southern Nevada Health District investigate.
Health officials have said they were first alerted to five cases of acute nonviral hepatitis, which causes liver failure, in infants and children from November.
In late August, the company’s president, secretary and treasurer, Blain Jones, son of owner Brent Jones, a former Nevada legislator, had offered Aiken a pay raise and a new job at their Henderson plant.
“One conversation?” attorney Will Kemp asked Aiken. “That was it?”
He replied: “I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ”
“Then you became the lead water technician?” Kemp asked.
“Right,” said Aiken, a former vacuum and timeshare salesman.
His new tasks required him to test for contaminants using what’s known as an oxidation reduction potential meter. He received “a couple hours” of hands-on training from Blain Jones, he said.
“I didn’t know what it was at all until he explained it to me and showed me,” Aiken said.
Last month, the company turned over a pair of the oxidation meters to be secured as exhibits in the lawsuits.
In November, around the same time children were hospitalized, Aiken brought home a 5-gallon jug of Real Water and fed it to his dog, a 2-year-old min pin/Chihuahua mix rescue.
Soon, the dog started throwing up, lost his appetite and became lethargic.
He and his wife took the dog to a veterinarian, who diagnosed the dog with a liver illness.
“So we stopped giving the dog the water,” Aiken said.
“Did he get better?” Kemp asked.
In one of the most recent lawsuits against the company behind what was touted as “the healthiest drinking water available” and its distributors, mixed martial arts fighter Lisa King said she started experiencing hearing loss, tremors and throat swelling and was ultimately diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder that causes weakness in skeletal muscles.
Known as “The Black Widow,” King had been a ring announcer for Real Water Mixed Martial Arts, which the bottled water company owned, and received two free cases of the product each month in exchange for social media posts showing her drinking the water.
She was hospitalized in June 2019 and “continues to treat for an unknown neurological disorder,” according to the complaint filed Tuesday by the firm Eglet Adams.
The suit also alleges what Aiken partly reported in his deposition: After the company learned of people becoming sick late last year, “Real Water began to surreptitiously replace 5-gallon water that had already been delivered to home delivery customers without informing customers of the reason for the replacement … Real Water was only able to recover some of the home delivery water and that hundreds of gallons of water that Real Water had actual knowledge was toxic remained in households throughout Clark County.”
Brent Jones has apologized to customers, while the company’s lawyers have said that they were cooperating with ongoing investigations. Attorneys for Real Water could not be reached for this story.
On Monday, the Southern Nevada Health District said it had linked at least six additional cases of severe liver disease to Real Water.
The FDA, which has recalled the product, said on its website that it is aware that the water is still being offered for sale through online retailers.
When investigators searched Real Water’s plants in March, Blain Jones approached Aiken and asked if he had altered the amount of concentrate added to the water.
“I was doing everything exactly the way they told me to do,” Aiken said.
Later, he received another call.
“They said there’s no work to do until this is all resolved,” he said.