Esther Rae Tuller, age 40, of Moses Lake, Washington, has pleaded guilty to tampering with morphine medication while working as a registered nurse. Chief United States District Judge Stanley A. Bastian accepted Tuller’s guilty plea and scheduled a sentencing hearing for March 17, 2022, in Spokane.
According to court documents and information disclosed during Tuller’s change of plea hearing, between August 2019 and April 2020, Tuller was a Washington-licensed registered nurse employed at the Confluence Health Clinic in Moses Lake. Her position as a nurse provided her with access to medications, including opioid narcotics such as morphine, an opioid derivative commonly prescribed by hospitals and health care facilities to relieve pain.
While working at Confluence Health, Tuller used syringes to remove morphine from at least 17 vials, and then ingested that morphine as part of her own opioid addiction. She then replaced the morphine with a saline solution that was essentially salt dissolved in water, and attempted to glue the caps back onto the vials to make them appear intact. Before Tuller was apprehended by law enforcement, at least one Confluence Health patient who was prescribed morphine had to be rushed to the emergency room; that patient continued to be in excruciating pain after receiving only saline from what was supposed to be morphine vials.
United States Attorney Vanessa R. Waldref emphasized that part of her mission to ensure a safe and strong community in Eastern Washington includes addressing the opioid epidemic in all of its forms. “While Ms. Tuller’s addiction to opioids is both tragic and far too common, her decision to take advantage of her access to medical-grade morphine was an egregious breach of trust. It is deeply troubling that she compounded her misconduct by secretly replacing that morphine with saline in vials that she knew would be distributed to patients. She recklessly and seriously endangered the safety of patients who rely on the judgment and integrity of health care professionals every day.”
The drug tampering charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, and up to 3 years of court supervision after release.
United States Attorney Waldref underscored how important it is to detect crimes like these. “I commend the outstanding investigative work by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Diversion Group as well as the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations. This case demonstrates that DEA, FDA, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will work tirelessly to protect and strengthen our communities both by combatting opioid abuse wherever it occurs, and by holding accountable anyone who abuses a position of trust to access dangerous drugs or put vulnerable patients at risk.”
Frank A. Tarentino III, Special Agent in Charge of DEA’s Seattle Field Division, highlighted DEA’s ongoing work against the abuse of opioids. “Ms. Tuller’s reckless actions violated her oath as a medical professional, and undermined the trust and confidence of the public. During this national opioid crisis, people are depending on health care and law enforcement professionals to keep our communities safe from anyone who seeks to exploit the system designed to provide care and treatment for those in need.”
“The FDA oversees the U.S. drug supply to ensure that it is safe and effective, and those who knowingly tamper with medicines put patients’ health at risk,” added Special Agent in Charge Lisa L. Malinowski of the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations Los Angeles Field Office. “We will continue to protect public health and bring to justice any health care professionals who take advantage of their unique positions or compromise their patients’ health and comfort by tampering with needed drugs.”
This investigation was conducted by the DEA’s Diversion Group in the Seattle Field Office, and the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, Seattle Domicile. Assistant United States Attorneys Dan Fruchter and Tyler H.L. Tornabene are prosecuting this matter on behalf of the United States.