Feeling No Pain

A morphine-addicted pharmacist hid his Colorado drug conviction and resumed work in California--for a while.

Former Fort Morgan pharmacist and self-confessed morphine addict Andrew Komesu was lucky to get out of Colorado with little more than a slap on the wrist. Now, however, he just might be forced to make a return visit--a possibility that both satisfies and frustrates drug-enforcement officers.

In 1995, Komesu served four months in jail for stealing enough drugs to anesthetize a sizable portion of the eastern plains. And as soon as the doors of the Morgan County Jail opened up to release him, Komesu skedaddled back to his home state of California, where he began serving six years of court-ordered probation ("Shoot Up First, Ask Questions Later," August 16, 1995).

Two weeks after that, Komesu was dispensing drugs for a Los Angeles-area hospital. It was another year before hospital supervisors discovered he had lied on his employment application regarding his criminal past--an act Colorado officials say could provide enough cause to revoke Komesu's probation and bring him back to face a possible prison sentence.

The chance that Komesu might do hard time pleases Fort Morgan police and federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who were angered by Komesu's light sentence (he could have received up to 48 years in prison). But the fact that Komesu was able to keep his conviction hidden from his employers for a full year--even though the California State Pharmacy Board was made aware of the charges against him last summer--points to a much larger problem, they say.

"It's a failure of the bureaucracy," says Fort Morgan police chief Harold Davisson. "I think, to me, it's a sure indication that [hospitals] don't do background investigations of people. It's totally wrong. When you have people in a position of dispensing medication, they should be held to a high standard because they're dealing with people's lives."

Before his 1994 arrest, Komesu held licenses to practice pharmacy in Colorado, Nevada and California. After his conviction, DEA agents notified the pharmacy boards in all three states of his status. The Colorado board acted swiftly, revoking his license last year. Court records show that the Nevada board ordered his license suspended in April 1995 and revoked it in January 1996.

But California was different. In July 1995, when Komesu went to work at St. Francis Hospital in suburban Lynwood, his license was considered "in good standing," a California pharmacy board spokeswoman confirms. A note of his Colorado conviction was not placed into Komesu's California file until October 1995, and a board hearing on the matter is not slated until next month. In fact, because no action has yet been taken against Komesu's license, it is still listed as being in good standing.

California's red tape has allowed Komesu a measure of secrecy, even though St. Francis was informed of his enrollment in the state's Pharmacists Recovery Program, which is designed to aid substance abusers or those with mental impairment. Under that two- to five-year program, participants must submit to random urinalysis, meet in a support group, complete an inpatient or outpatient treatment program and have their work supervised by an on-site monitor.

California state law does not require, however, that hospitals or drugstores be told what problem brought a participant to the recovery program. St. Francis employees won't discuss the Komesu matter with Westword, but a hospital pharmacist told Colorado law enforcement officials that she was led to believe that Komesu was a recovering alcoholic.

The pharmacist was also under the impression that Komesu had never been arrested on felony charges--because that's what he'd written on his job application. Although the application states that a conviction is not an automatic bar to hiring, Komesu marked the "No" box in a section asking, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime other than a traffic violation?"

Komesu's co-workers "liked him at first," says a Colorado investigator who asked not to be identified. "But after a while the other employees began to complain that he wasn't doing his work and that they had to take up the slack. He got a low [job] evaluation, and he was brought in to talk about it."

At first, the investigator says he was told, Komesu confided to his supervisor that his work was suffering because he was having marital difficulties. It wasn't until Komesu's supervisor contacted the Colorado State Board of Pharmacy and law enforcement officers here that she learned the truth.

"The [hospital officials] were incredulous," says DEA spokesman Carl Hinds. "And when they confronted him about the arrest, he said that he'd been jailed for killing a police officer in a car accident, but that his lawyer had plea-bargained it down to a drug charge."

His employer apparently didn't buy the story--Komesu was fired effective July 16, Colorado authorities say. (A hospital administrator told Colorado investigators that she didn't believe any drugs were missing from the St. Francis pharmacy.)

Komesu has received minimal attention from the California probation office since arriving from Colorado a year ago--he is required only to keep in touch by mail. Michael Jones, Komesu's California probation officer, cites "client confidentiality" in declining to discuss the case. But Komesu's Colorado-based probation officer, Steve Proctor, says he is highly interested in what has taken place in California. "I'm waiting for the hospital to send me copies of their reports," Proctor says. "It's my understanding that he did not disclose his felony conviction, they found out about it and apparently let him go.

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