The Montana Department of Justice has alerted county attorneys across the state that after an investigation it determined an employee at the state crime lab took portions of drug evidence that had been submitted for analysis.
Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst said Thursday the incident is under investigation by the Missoula Police Department and she anticipated that charges would be filed in the near future. Missoula is the location of one of the state crime labs, with another located in Billings.
In a letter, Forensic Science Division administrator Scott Larson said the crime lab is confirming all evidence in the employee’s possession to determine if any cases were affected, and said that it will reach out to all prosecutors with a list of cases that they had on which the employee worked. The state Department of Justice confirmed the letter and the investigation.
Deputy Communications Director Anastasia Burton told the Missoulian on Thursday that the crime lab is in the “process of understanding the parameters of this situation” and that internal and external re-testing is needed to determine if older cases were compromised.
The letter did not specify the types of drugs that were taken, and Burton said it is too early in the process to release that information.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito told the Billings Gazette he received a copy of the letter, but didn’t think the incident would impact cases in eastern Montana because the drug theft happened at Missoula's lab and drug evidence on the east side of the state is sent to the crime lab in Billings.
Burton would neither confirm or deny that the drug theft was isolated to the state crime lab office in Missoula.
At this time, Larson wrote that they are not aware of any inaccuracies with the results of their reports.
Some evidence in cases with a pending trial will be brought back to the crime lab for retesting.
Larson also said the crime lab started a drug testing policy earlier in the month that includes random testing quarterly, and is reviewing the rest of its policies.
A similar evidence breach occurred in early 2015, when former evidence technician Steve Brester stole opioids that were being stored as evidence in criminal cases. Charges against 69 defendants across the state were dropped as a result of that breach.
Brester was charged with felonies for tampering with public records and drug possession and eventually received a 10-year fully suspended sentence in Missoula County District Court. Before joining the crime lab, Brester was an officer with the Missoula Police Department for 20 years.
At his sentencing hearing, Brester’s wife said her husband was injured on the job when he patrol car was rear ended, and that he became addicted to pain medication.