DA reneges on plea agreement

Nurse offered deal in drug theft case

So when's a deal not a deal?

That's the question before Judge Michael O'Hara, submitted in a motion Wednesday by an attorney representing a former nurse at The Memorial Hospital charged with stealing and consuming patients' pain medication -- drugs in some cases that were allegedly replaced with saline and administered to patients.

O'Hara will rule on the motion "to enforce plea agreement" 10 a.m. July 28 -- the next hearing for 40-year-old Laurel Johnson.

Brian Holland, Johnson's attorney, and District Attorney Bonnie Roesink had orally agreed to a plea deal Jan. 7 in the case, according to testimony Wednesday.

But Holland argued that Roesink has essentially withdrawn the deal after filing a new criminal charge against Johnson after Jan. 7.

"If there was an agreement, there's an awful lot of case law that says a deal is a deal," said O'Hara, who insisted he still hadn't decided on Holland's motion.

Johnson in December was charged in a four-count felony complaint alleging possession and use of a controlled substance, and misdemeanor theft.

The Craig woman allegedly stole and used TMH supplies of Demerol and Morphine from a lock-box in the hospital's surgical unit -- thefts which court documents state didn't come to supervisors' attention until mid-September.

The alleged thefts occurred while Johnson was both on and off duty in her nursing position at TMH, while police have said no evidence suggests she consumed the painkillers while on the job.

Johnson was removed from contact with patients Sept. 24.

The District Attorney's Office filed the original charges against Johnson Dec. 5.

Johnson's arrest warrant states her patients "hurt more" than other nurses' patients, while some of them came out of surgeries in pain "after receiving high amounts of what they thought was pain medication."

By removing narcotics from the vials and adding saline, patients might have developed systemic infections "which could have endangered their lives," the warrant states.

TMH administrator Randy Phelps has said "less than five" patients received "less than prescribed amounts" of the pain killers -- all of whom were notified by the hospital, according to a news release distributed Oct. 23 by TMH.

Meanwhile, Roesink Wednesday said she had not received police reports detailing the alleged replacement of narcotics with saline when a plea deal was struck with Johnson's attorney Jan. 7.

Johnson's arrest warrant was filed with the court Dec. 4.

Roesink's office Jan. 20 filed an amended complaint charging Johnson with a count of misdemeanor third-degree assault against one of her former TMH patients.

"Circumstances changed considerably after the agreement was reached," said Roesink, who declined comment on the terms of the plea offer.

Court documents do not specify the felony charge Johnson would plead to, but indicate she would receive "deferred judgement" in the case. Probation is offered in many such cases when the accused has no prior felony convictions. If that probation is violated, a judge may hand down a state prison sentence.

Roesink, meanwhile, also noted Johnson's court-ordered drug testing as a glitch in the case.

Johnson -- according to conditions on a $10,000 bond posted for her release from the Moffat County Jail -- was placed on a series of tests through Craig's Correctional Alternative Placement Services.

Johnson Dec. 17 had submitted one urine sample suspected to be "diluted," according to testimony and court documents.

Attempts to conceal drug use -- typically with heavy consumption of water just prior to the tests -- are among the possible explanations for the results, officials said Wednesday.

"At the time of the agreement, I had made it clear to her that one more diluted UA sample would be considered a positive sample," Roesink said.

She said a second suspect sample was submitted Feb. 16.

Court documents filed by Holland state Johnson has provided more than 45 urine samples since Dec. 6 -- none of which tested positive for drugs.

Paul Shockley can be reached at 824-7031 or at pshockley@craigdailypress.com

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