EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 27, 2012

Chemist at center of drug lab case told police she 'messed up bad'

By Matt Murphy
State House News Services

---- — BOSTON — The former state chemist accused of jeopardizing thousands of convictions by tampering with drug evidence admitted to investigators that for two or three years she cut corners at the now shuttered state drug lab by recording false positives and “a few times” adding known drugs to samples to produce the desired result, according to a copy of a State Police report obtained by the News Service.

In an interview with detectives, chemist Annie Dookhan confessed to improperly removing drug samples from evidence storage, forging her colleagues’ signatures on log books, and intentionally turning negative tests into positive by adding drugs.

The only explanation Dookhan gave investigators for her action was that she wanted to “get more work done,” though she did not suggest she was under any pressure to improve her productivity and state officials have said Dookhan’s workload far exceeded that of any of her colleagues at the lab.

“I screwed up big time. I messed up. I messed up bad. It’s my fault. I don’t want the lab to get in trouble,” Dookhan told investigators with a tear in her eye, according to the report. She also signed a statement admitting to her actions.

In follow-up conversations with police who advised Dookhan to get an attorney, the mother of one young son said she was worried about affording counsel, was going through a “long divorce” and never meant to hurt anybody. One former lab supervisor speculated to police that she may have had a “mental breakdown.”

The insight into the state’s case against Dookhan comes as state officials are attempting to unravel the widespread implications of her actions, which have the potential to compromise as many as 34,000 cases handled by Dookhan since 2003. She told police she did not know how many samples she improperly tested.

Det. Capt. Joseph Mason and Det. Lt. Robert Irwin, assigned to the attorney general’s office, visited Dookhan’s home on Aug. 28 to interview her as part of their investigation into the lab. The 101-page report produced by State Police as part of Attorney General Martha Coakley’s active investigation into the Hinton Laboratory includes dozens of interviews with other lab employees as well.

Presented with evidence, Dookhan admitted to police that she had removed 90 drug samples in June 20011 from the evidence room that were not assigned to her and not entered into the computer or evidence log book by an evidence officer. Though she said she did not recall removing the evidence, she told police “she must have done so” because it was the only explanation.

Dookhan said that incident was the only time she ever improperly removed evidence, and confessed to forging a colleague’s initials after the fact because she wanted to get her work done and no one was available to sign off on the tests. “I screwed up. It’s my fault. I was not paying attention,” Dookhan said.

Dookhan also described to investigators how she began cutting corners at the lab, and then started to tamper with the evidence in an attempt to cover her mistakes. Using a technique called “dry labbing” or identifying drugs by sight, Dookhan said she would remove large numbers of samples from evidence and divide them on her bench based on what drug she presumed them to be.

With batches of 25 samples of what she believed to be the same drug, Dookhan said she would then test about five samples properly, but label all the samples as the drug she suspected it of being.

When those samples were submitted for confirmation and returned because her tests were shown to be incorrect, Dookhan said she would try to “clean up” the sample in order to not get caught for failing to conduct preliminary analyses correctly. Dookhan said she would first try to get the desired result by using a more concentrated sample or a larger quantity. If that didn’t work, Dookhan said, she “only contaminated samples a few times” by adding a known drug stored at her desk.

Dookhan told investigators this was going on for two to three years, though she said no one at the lab was aware of what she was doing and she had no evidence that any other chemists were similarly cutting corners, according to the report.

“Dookhan explained that she did what she did in order to get more work done,” Det. Lt. Irwin wrote in his report.

Dozens of interviews with other lab chemists by investigators show that many had concerns about the volume of work Dookhan was performing and her inattention to detail, which included failing to properly calibrate her scales. While some respected her work, others suggested she was sloppy, rushed her tests and was angling for a promotion.

One chemist suggested to police it was almost as if Dookhan “wanted to get caught,” while another noted she had been going through “personal problems.” That chemist said it was possible Dookhan was “trying to be important by being the ‘go-to person.’”

Two days after that interview, Gov. Deval Patrick ordered the Hinton Lab in Jamaica Plain closed, concerned about the possibility of a “miscarriage of justice.”

“It’s the information that caused me to shut down the lab when I first learned about it and to launch these investigations and to launch the central law office so that we can get to the bottom of the individuals affected and do right by them,” Patrick told the News Service on Wednesday when asked about the State Police report.

According to an administration official, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office released the documents that are part of her ongoing investigation into the drug lab to district attorneys who then passed the information on to defense attorneys with active drug cases.

In a cover letter to district attorneys from Assistant Attorney General John Verner, chief of the criminal bureau, Verner described the information contained in the report as potentially “necessary to your Offices’ determination about how to proceed with cases in which related narcotics evidence was tested.”

Patrick acknowledged that the step of releasing investigatory material was uncommon, but said he supported the rare disclosure to defense attorneys and prosecutors.

“You know it’s unusual for the interview notes of the State Police to be shared with the general public for that matter in the midst of a criminal investigation, but we thought it was important for this to happen,” Patrick said.

Attorney David Meier, tapped by Gov. Patrick to lead a new “central office” set up to link the 60,000 samples touched by Dookhan over her nine-year career with specific cases, reported this week that she had handled drug samples for 1,141 felons currently serving time in a state prison, jail or county house of correction.

Already, several defendants arrested on drug charges have had their sentences suspended, been freed, or had their bail reduced by judges as a result of the ongoing investigation and questions about the reliability of the lab’s testing.

Public safety officials have said Dookhan worked on as many as 34,000 cases since 2003.

Public health officials also acknowledged this week that Dookhan exaggerated on her resume when she applied for her position in 2003, claiming to be studying for her master’s degree in chemistry at UMass Boston when she was not enrolled at the school. Dookhan signed a form attesting to the contents of her resume under pains of perjury.

“While neither of the positions she held required a Master’s Degree, it is now clear that she intentionally misled the Department about her education during the course of her employment,” said Alec Loftus, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.