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Feeling No Pain

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.

"What my concern is, is that if a failure to disclose is a violation of California pharmacy law, then there's a problem--he could be in violation of his probation."

At next month's California pharmacy board hearing, Komesu could face action ranging from a probationary period to suspension or revocation of his license.

Komesu did not return phone calls from Westword, and it could not be learned whether or not he is presently employed. "Maybe he's working at a drugstore," says a disgruntled law enforcement officer--which, since his California license is still in good standing, would be perfectly legal.

Komesu's credentials were in fine shape in May 1993 when he moved with his wife and four children from California to the plains town of Fort Morgan to become pharmacy director for the Colorado Plains Medical Center. But within months of arriving, Komesu had a monkey on his back. He later claimed that he became addicted to morphine after a doctor (whom he didn't name) prescribed the drug for a painful pancreatic condition.

Rather than obtaining help for his addiction, Komesu began secreting drugs out of the pharmacy, ordering large amounts of opiates for the hospital and then forging prescriptions to cover his tracks. At the height of his addiction, he later said, he was injecting 800 milligrams per day--more than four times the amount needed to put a cow into respiratory arrest--and the inventory losses were discovered by other pharmacists.

When Fort Morgan police and DEA agents finally caught up with Komesu in May 1994, he was preparing to move his family from Colorado to Hawaii. The size of his stash astounded even veteran drug-enforcement officers: He'd stolen approximately two gallons of morphine (an estimated 27,800 doses) and stockpiled the painkillers Demerol, Duragesic and Tylenol with codeine. They also confiscated two handguns and five assault rifles, some of which were being converted to automatic weapons.

On June 17, 1994, the Colorado pharmacy board ordered Komesu's pharmacy license summarily suspended. But the paperwork was not completed until a month later--four days after Komesu had landed a job at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver. Hospital officials did not learn of his status until October of that year, when a Fort Morgan newspaper reporter told them their new hire had recently pled guilty to--and was awaiting sentencing on--25 drug-related felonies. He was fired.

After months of haggling, Morgan County District Attorney Chris Hefty and Komesu's attorney, Michael Cohen of Westminster, reached a sentencing agreement, which they presented to District Judge Douglas Vannoy for his approval at a February 1995 hearing. Both attorneys agreed that probation was not an option. Vannoy ordered that Komesu serve six years in prison.

In May of that year, however, Cohen asked Vannoy to reconsider the sentence. His client, Cohen said, had been in the county jail for more than 100 days, unable to transfer to prison because of overcrowded conditions in the state facilities. That jail time, Cohen argued, represented "significant punishment." Surprisingly, Vannoy agreed; the judge suspended the balance of Komesu's sentence and ordered him to serve six years' probation instead. Komesu walked out of jail July 3, 1995. Police officers went public with their frustration and blamed prosecutor Hefty. And Hefty, angered by the judge's turnaround, charged that Komesu "laughed all the way out of Colorado.


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