Former State Crime Lab Employee Charged in Drug Tampering

2 KTUU-TV, ktuu.com
BYLINE: Chris Klint, Senior Digital Producer,

Alaska

ANCHORAGE - A former employee of Alaska’s state crime lab faces 10 charges, including six felonies, after Alaska State Troopers say he tampered with drugs kept at the lab while addicted to heroin.

According to Thursday statements from the Alaska Department of law, 53-year-old Stephen Palmer worked at the crime lab as an analyst from May 1992 until resigning on Dec. 1, 2011. He is charged with scheme to defraud, second-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance and four counts of tampering with physical evidence, in addition to four misdemeanor counts of official misconduct.

The case potentially offers answers to concerns about the crime lab’s reference samples, used to determine the nature of seized drugs, which first came to light in January. Defense attorneys had said the irregularities reported at the time, involving morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, opium, codeine and amphetamine reference samples, could call into question numerous state drug cases -- a position prosecutors refuted Thursday.

“The Department of Law does not believe the discovered irregularities in the reference standards have negatively impacted the scientific validity of testing performed by other analysts at the lab,” officials wrote. “Authorities are in the process of reviewing past analysis performed by Palmer to look for any potential criminal conduct related to that analysis or anything that raises concern about the integrity of any convictions in those cases.”

According to a criminal complaint from Alaska State Troopers investigator Gordon Bittner, an investigation began last summer into the purity of the crime lab’s reference samples. A sample of morphine contained only 25 percent morphine, while an oxycodone sample tested as only 49 percent pure. More impurities were found in a series of 15 suspect samples being sent for laboratory testing.

“Specifically, the contents of the morphine standard contained 12 copper clad BBs, one white colored BB and three metallic laboratory stir bars,” Bittner wrote. “One BB was found in the amphetamine reference standard, six BBs were found in the opium reference standard, and six BBs were found in the hydrocodone reference standard.”

Troopers received two Jan. 2, 2012 911 calls from Palmer’s wife, Colleen Palmer. While she immediately hung up on the first when dispatchers answered, in the second she asked them to make a welfare check on him shortly after his resignation; troopers arrived to find Palmer unconscious on a bed, with his wife handing over a jar containing clear liquid, as well as “what appeared to be seeds and stems.”

“Colleen Palmer said she had found her husband ‘with his drugs’ and that he had given her his ‘poppy straw,’” Bittner wrote. “Troopers also contacted Palmer, who was argumentative. Palmer told troopers that he was a chemist, that he had ‘made the extraction himself’ and described the substance in the jar as ‘poppy straw.’”

While an initial test revealed no controlled substances, Bittner had the jar tested again -- revealing morphine, heroin, and two substances known as 6MMA and papaverine in residue from the container’s cap.

“6MMA and papaverine are byproducts of the extraction of morphine from poppy straw,” Bittner wrote.

Bittner found that evidence from two cases at the crime lab, including tablets of diazepam, diphenhydramine, promethazine, methadone and oxycodone, had gone missing from a locked tote on or about Dec. 1, 2011 -- the date of Palmer’s resignation. Palmer, who was assigned to work on the cases, had a key for the tote; computer records keep track of who has evidence at all times.

“According to the computer logs, Palmer had checked out the evidence from two cases and placed them in Tote 33,” Bittner wrote. “Palmer never recorded returning the evidence items, or Tote 33 itself.”

While the tote was later found on the shelves without Palmer’s lock, none of the lab’s evidence technicians had accepted the tote.

“It appears that Tote 33 was simply replaced on the shelves; it was not logged in as being returned by Palmer,” Bittner wrote. “The evidence which should have been in Tote 33 was never found.”

Craig Palmer, Stephen Palmer’s oldest son, told Bittner that his father had left the crime lab shortly after telling his wife he was a drug addict, an admission which prompted her to demand that he resign.

“Later he talked to his father and his father said that he was addicted to drugs since he had had a skiing accident over five years ago and had become addicted to various controlled substances,” Bittner wrote. “His father also told him that he never had to pay for the drugs. Palmer also told his son that he never went more than 8-12 hours without ‘hitting up’ during his drug addiction.”

In a seven-page Jan. 7, 2012 document from Stephen Palmer to his son, seized by Bittner, Palmer allegedly gives a history of his drug and alcohol use, including “oxycodone, Fentanyl, ‘various opiates,’ methamphetamine, heroin, Xanax, MDMA and ketamine.” The history also says Palmer took daily doses of heroin and methamphetamine from 2005 through 2011.

Palmer denied the allegations raised in the case during an interview with Bittner.

“When interviewed, Palmer had no explanation for the drugs in the lab that had gone missing,” Bittner wrote. “He also denied being addicted to any controlled substances. He stated that at the time his wife had called 911 he had been sick and sleep-deprived and that he and his wife had got into an argument about the ‘poppy straw’ and he just went back to bed. He did not remember any statements he made to troopers at that time.”

Anchorage-based defense attorney Rex Butler says that people convicted based on evidence linked to Palmer's case may have grounds to challenge their convictions.

"Defendants out there who are doing a lot of jail time based on a drug case (in which) Mr. Palmer was the lab analyst, you know -- the question is, do these people have a right to call foul and have these cases reopened?"

Butler also worries that Palmer's case could undercut the functionality of the state's courts.

"This is the kind of breach of trust that you don't want between the prosecution and key witnesses such as analysts from the crime lab and the defense, because we all rely on the integrity of the crime lab and its employees," Butler said.

John Skidmore, director of the Alaska Department of Law's criminal division, says it's too early to tell if Palmer's actions have altered the outcome of cases -- but the state is trying to find out.

"It's a process where we're going to have to evaluate our cases individually, going back to look at older cases, to see if any of those are affected -- and that's a process that we've already started," Skidmore said.

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