June 21, 2009 in City

Drug thefts at jail led to policy changes

Eleven employees disciplined or fired for taking inmates’ medications
Meghann M. Cuniff meghannc@spokesman.com, (509) 459-5534
 

They’re paid to guard and care for inmates.

But some Kootenai County Jail employees saw the facility as their personal drug store, taking advantage of such lax controls over inmate medications that the Idaho State Police would eventually launch a yearlong investigation involving hidden cameras, lie detectors and interviews with more than a dozen nurses, jail guards and inmates, documents obtained by The Spokesman-Review show.

The documents, obtained through a public records request, provide the first detailed look at a criminal probe that ended in March with no charges filed and few details revealed. Although the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department in April announced the firing and punishment of 11 jail employees as part of the probe, officials refused to identify the employees or discuss the scope of the problem.

The ISP investigation found that inmate prescriptions were left on carts in a room with little security or supervision. Pills left over after inmates were discharged, or that were refused, were tossed in a bin marked for disposal; it was from this bin that most of the thefts occurred.

This lack of security and poor record-keeping enabled the thefts, records show, and it contributed to a Bonner County prosecutor’s decision not to file criminal charges. In explaining his decision, Prosecutor Louis Marshall cited a lack of evidence such as recovered stolen pills or records proving the thefts, documents show.

Charges dismissed

A missing pill or two from the inmate stores had been common for years, records show. It wasn’t until February 2008, when an inmate noticed that nearly 75 of her hydrocodone painkillers were missing, that there was deemed to be a problem.

The inmate demanded reimbursement, but initially got nowhere, complaining for weeks to a jail nurse, Monique Minas, who ended up being implicated in the investigation.

Minas was not fired, but officials declined to discuss disciplinary actions against her, citing personnel privacy.

When the inmate threatened to go to the media and her lawyer got involved, jail staff contacted the Idaho State Police, launching the investigation.

A 2006 medication-theft case at the jail ended with the firing of a longtime employee. Al Hetzler, a 25-year veteran, was charged with theft for stealing medications from an inmate. Charges were dismissed after he served five days in jail in August 2007, paid a $300 fine and reimbursed the inmate $25.50, records show.

Jail officials concluded at the time that Hetzler’s case was an isolated incident and made no policy changes, said jail Capt. Travis Chaney.

But documents show the Hetzler theft hinted at a problem that reached supervisors charged with investigating the missing pills and seemed to reveal a mentality that prescription pills were no big deal.

“The only difference between the deputies and them (pointing to the inmates) was that the inmates got caught,” one jailer recalled another saying, according to the documents.

‘A candy store’

Three employees were fired this February – 11 months after the ISP investigation began and a year after the pills were reported missing.

Documents show the trio’s actions were the most egregious of a handful of employees implicated in the investigation.

Eleven-year veteran Sgt. Rafael Merrill was fired after admitting taking a hydrocodone pill from the leftover medications with the help of a licensed practical nurse, Ruth Nagle.

Nagle, who was hired in 2003, was fired in February after the investigation concluded she’d helped Lisa Brumbaugh, a booking deputy who’d worked at the jail nine years, smuggle pills from the jail.

Brumbaugh was fired two days earlier after admitting she’d taken hundreds of hydrocodone pills since May 2007 with the help of Nagle and Judy Lobue, a registered nurse who still works there.

Nearly a dozen people were named in the investigation, and interviews show the medications were long seen by many employees as free for the taking.

“The accessibility of the medications without accountability was a candy store for anyone that needed free controlled narcotic medications,” one employee told investigators.

Some spoke of receiving one or two pills over the years.

Another recalled getting a handful of prescription medications that were left over from an inmate; that employee insisted on repaying the jail and bought the office a filing cabinet, documents show.

Documents suggest some employees were bitter that inmates had prescriptions for drugs they couldn’t get.

‘Problems can arise’

The ISP’s yearlong investigation steeped the office in suspicion.

Employees were under watch, and rumors about the investigation permeated their work life, they told the ISP.

Initially, Nagle and Brumbaugh gave investigators names of co-workers they claimed might be responsible. But investigators had heard Brumbaugh might have a drug problem, and her medical records showed she was taking hydrocodone – something she lied about during her first interview with investigators.

Brumbaugh’s prescription ran out about the time the hydrocodone pills turned up missing, records show.

“Any time you’re dealing with those types of substances, problems can arise,” said Chaney, the jail captain. “That’s why you try to maintain controls.”

In this case, some who were assigned to maintain that control ended up on the other end of the investigation.

Disciplinary actions against employees were determined not just by the investigation but by the employees’ work record and past performance assessments, officials said.

Sheriff Rocky Watson refused to discuss apparent differences in how various employees were disciplined, citing personnel issues.

But procedures for storing and documenting medication have changed, Watson said. He declined to detail those changes, citing security issues.

Documents show at least five employees who were implicated in the thefts still work at the jail.

Get stories like this in a free daily email


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus