A former state crime lab employee was charged Thursday with six felonies after an investigation by the Alaska State Troopers into the lab's handling of drug samples.
Stephen Palmer worked for the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage from 1992 until 2011, and for six of those years he used heroin and methamphetamine every day, charging documents say. The 53-year-old from Palmer allegedly told his son he never had to pay for drugs and never went more than eight to 12 hours without "hitting up," according to charges.
Palmer resigned from his job as a forensic lab analyst in December 2011 "for no apparent reason," the charges said.
By the summer of 2013, troopers had launched an investigation into the lab after another analyst, John Giacalone, discovered that the oxycodone and morphine reference standards were impure. The reference standard samples are used by the crime lab to compare suspected drugs seized by law enforcement.
Trooper Investigator Gordon Bittner requested that 15 separate drug reference standards be sent to an independent lab for testing for irregularities. While the standards were being prepared for shipping, more impurities were found, charges said.
As the seven-month investigation continued, Bittner identified Palmer, the former employee, as a suspect. Palmer worked in the lab's drug section, testing substances submitted as evidence to the lab, said John Skidmore, chief of the Department of Law's Criminal Division.
"His work required him to do testing on drugs every day," Skidmore said. "I can't tell you that he necessarily was in direct contact with reference standards every day."
In 2012, soon after his resignation, troopers responded to Palmer's home and found the man unconscious. They seized a jar containing clear liquid, stems and seeds, which Bittner resubmitted for further analysis as part of his investigation. The crime lab determined that residue in the jar's cap contained morphine, heroin and two byproducts of the extraction of morphine from poppy straw.
Troopers also determined that Palmer was the analyst who tested substances in two incidents where drugs either went missing or were substituted. In one case, tablets of suspected methadone were replaced with similar-looking non-narcotic tablets. In another, Giacalone discovered that five tablets Palmer had identified as methadone were actually an over-the-counter cold remedy, charges said.
Palmer faces six felonies, including charges of scheming to defraud, misconduct involving a controlled substance and tampering with physical evidence, according to court documents. He has also been charged with four counts of official misconduct, misdemeanors.
The Anchorage charges come during a sweep of media coverage on a crime lab scandal in Massachusetts, where a chemist admitted to faking test results in criminal cases.
In Alaska, the Department of Law maintains that irregularities in reference standards have not negatively affected the "scientific validity of testing" at the lab but authorities are reviewing past analyses performed by Palmer, said a statement from the attorney general's office.
Skidmore said that under Alaska law there doesn't need to be a certain percentage of a controlled substance in the material at issue before it's considered a violation of criminal law.
"If it's one one-thousandth, (you'd) still be in possession of cocaine," Skidmore said, so the reference standard doesn't have to be pure.
When Bittner questioned Palmer, he said he had no explanation for why the drugs in the crime lab went missing.
"He also denied being addicted to any controlled substances. He stated that at the time his wife 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," charges said. "He did not remember any statements he made to the troopers at this time."
Palmer's oldest son, Craig, told Bittner that in November 2011 his mother told him that his father had admitted to being a drug addict and she immediately insisted that he resign from the crime lab. Palmer allegedly told his son that he had been addicted to drugs since a skiing accident more than five years ago.
Bittner seized a letter from Palmer to his son signed "Dad" and dated Jan. 17, 2012. In the letter, Palmer attached a seven-page list of all the drugs he'd taken over the years, compiled as part of his rehabilitation efforts, charges said. The list included oxycodone, Fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, Xanax and more.
Palmer is being held in the Anchorage jail. His indictment is scheduled for Friday, when he will have the chance to request an appointed lawyer.
Reach Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.
By TEGAN HANLON