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part 1 of 2 Fort Morgan hospital pharmacist Andrew Komesu was already in jail facing charges of forging prescriptions and plundering drugs when local police and federal agents discovered his stash. The haul, made in May 1994, was one of the largest in ten years for a DEA anti-drug task...
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Fort Morgan hospital pharmacist Andrew Komesu was already in jail facing charges of forging prescriptions and plundering drugs when local police and federal agents discovered his stash. The haul, made in May 1994, was one of the largest in ten years for a DEA anti-drug task force that covers a four-state area. It was as if Komesu had planned to open his own drugstore, the agents joked.

Inside a Loveland storage warehouse, investigators found the painkillers Demerol, Duragesic and Tylenol with codeine. Komesu had hoarded Versed (an anesthetic) and the drugs Xanax, Wellbutrin and Halcion. He'd stockpiled large quantities of antibiotics, aspirin and Maalox and stored two handguns and five assault rifles, some of which were being converted to automatic weapons.

But it was the amount of morphine discovered that stunned even the most seasoned agents. Komesu had amassed approximately two gallons of the narcotic, enough to provide every man, woman and child in the eastern Colorado prairie town of Fort Morgan with several hefty doses.

If convicted in federal court, the 39-year-old Komesu would have received a mandatory sixty years for his crimes. But the local district attorney agreed instead to prosecute the pharmacist in state court in return for his guilty plea to 25 felonies. The plea bargain called for Komesu to serve five to twenty years in a Colorado prison. Probation, Komesu's lawyer and the district attorney agreed, was not to be an option.

When Komesu was sentenced to five years, the local police were satisfied. It was the minimum they were willing to accept, they say, but they decided they could live with it.

Early last month, however, after serving just over four months in the county jail, Komesu was released, his sentence reduced to probation.

And that's something the feds, the police and the people of Fort Morgan have decided they shouldn't have to live with.

"On occasion," DEA task-force member John Gray opined three weeks ago at a ceremony to honor the police officers who worked on the case, "truth, justice and common sense have no place in the courtroom." Fort Morgan police blame the district attorney's office for what they now see as lax prosecution. But the district attorney claims he was "burned" by the judge and the opposing counsel.

Komesu's case has reopened a debate about how to treat medical professionals who are addicted to drugs. Are they run-of-the-mill addicts, or do they deserve special treatment because of their professional status?

Komesu says he deserves a break. Even though, in his own words, he was a "drug addict and thief," he tells Westword he doesn't believe he should have been treated like a common criminal. "It stabbed me in the heart, because they made me out to be a bad person," he says, "and I'm not. I'm a good person. I did a bad thing." He stresses that he never sold the drugs. He'd stockpiled 27,800 doses of morphine, he says, only for the purpose of weaning himself off of it.

In an editorial, the Fort Morgan Times complained, "This man's `professional' background includes stealing drugs...In this day and age of `get tough on crime,' it is hard to believe that this man could be out walking the streets after serving just five months in jail."

The good people of Fort Morgan don't have to worry about Komesu running loose in their town--he relinquished his license to practice pharmacy in the state of Colorado.

But Californians might want to be on the lookout. Despite Komesu's claims to the contrary, DEA agents believe he's already working as a pharmacist in the Los Angeles area.

Andres Komesu (he goes by "Andrew") had been a pharmacist for eleven years when, in May 1993, he moved his family from California to Fort Morgan to accept a position as director of the pharmacy at the Colorado Plains Medical Center. He moved to the farming community, he says, because he thought Colorado a beautiful place and because he wanted to leave retail pharmacy and get back into a hospital environment.

"Health professionals, in general, are a prideful group," Komesu says, and in that respect, he was no different from the rest. "I believed I was a good pharmacist. I thought I was the best clinical pharmacist I know."

Komesu, in fact, had received a glowing recommendation from his former boss in California, who praised him for his experience, knowledge, attitude and dependability. "I am sure," wrote pharmacy manager Michael Castillo, "that given the opportunity to show what kind of worker and person he is, you will not be disappointed."

Komesu's boss couldn't have been more wrong. Within months of Komesu's arrival in Fort Morgan, he was using his experience and knowledge to line his pockets with stolen drugs. (Castillo professed shock last week at hearing of Komesu's conviction. Komesu, he says, had left in good standing and was a "great employee," and the store suffered no loss of controlled substances.)

Komesu claims his problems began in June or July of 1993, when he was stricken with pancreatitis. The pain was so bad, he says, he became convinced he was going to die. He says he was given a prescription of morphine to take the edge off, but claims he can no longer remember his doctor's name--"and I don't know if he'd want me to give his name, anyway." Within two months of the onset of his illness, Komesu says, he'd become addicted to the drug and had begun raiding the hospital's supply to maintain his habit.

(Investigators say they doubt the pancreatitis story, but they never delved deeply into that claim. How he became addicted is not nearly so important to them, they say, as the manner in which he fed his addiction.)

Komesu admits he could have gone to his doctor for help when he realized the hold morphine had on him. "I should have, but I didn't," he says. "It's hard to make those level decisions about your condition when you're addicted. I knew I needed it. I was a pharmacist, so I stupidly thought I could get it myself. I shouldn't have done that. I shouldn't have done a lot of things."

Komesu's most effective way of obtaining the drugs was simply to place an order with a pharmaceutical company and then spirit the drugs out of the hospital at odd hours of the day and night. Thievery was relatively easy. Dealing with his addiction, though, became harder all the time.

"I never went joyriding on that thing," Komesu says of morphine. "I never used it to get high. I did it to get up in the morning and to do what I had to do."

Komesu's tolerance for the drug quickly mushroomed. According to Denver General Hospital drug experts, a "normal" intramuscular shot of morphine consists of five to twenty milligrams every four hours, twenty milligrams being the amount prescribed for terminally ill cancer patients. At the height of Komesu's addiction, he was injecting 800 milligrams a day, enough, he notes, "to kill a horse."

Komesu says he was able to hide his usage from his colleagues, but he was unable to keep it hidden from his wife, Mary, a former nurse.

"I tried cutting down," Komesu says of his attempt to kick morphine. "I would lock the drugs away. My wife was supporting me, but withdrawal was so miserable and hard, she would not have the heart to see me go through that. She would wean me down, but after three or four days of that, I couldn't get out of bed. I'd have diarrhea, cramps, cold sweats. In the Bible they describe hell as `the gnashing of teeth.' That's what it was."

Mary, he says, would administer the drug to him when he felt he could not continue without it. On one occasion, he recalls, she brought him back from the brink of death. "I was giving myself an injection," he says, his voice breaking with emotion. "I hit a vein accidentally, and I almost died. I couldn't breathe. My wife was there to give me artificial respiration until I could breathe again."

(Mary Komesu, who later told police she viewed her husband's drug usage as a "family crisis," declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Komesu says his wife tried to get him to enter a rehab program, but he refused. His rejection of therapy was based on a number of factors--pride, money and a fear of the consequences.

In Komesu's view, the issue of pride went far deeper than professional conceit. His Asian-American family attempted to ingrain in him from an early age the concept of "death before dishonor," he says.

During World War II Komesu's father, Nathan, fought for the United States, serving in an all-Japanese-American regimental combat unit. Nathan's brother fought for Japan and the Imperial Navy. "Before sending them off to war, the family held their funerals," Komesu says. "They were sent off with only one instruction: `Don't shame the family.'

"It was a different philosophy. It was a different generation. This generation isn't like that."

But to Nathan Komesu, things had not changed. When Mary Komesu approached her father-in-law and asked for help and money to get Andrew into a drug treatment program, his only response--according to Andrew--was, "Don't shame the family."

Komesu is vague when asked about how hard he tried to get into a rehab program. Excuses were easy to find: The programs were too costly, and with four kids, he couldn't afford to be out of work. And he was afraid, he says, that coming forward would mean he'd lose his job and possibly go to jail. "If the environment is such that you're forced underground," he says, "there's no incentive to seek help."

There is a program in Colorado designed specifically to help medical professionals in the throes of drug or alcohol addiction, but Komesu rejected it out of hand.

Peer Systems Services Inc. is a recovery "network" established by medical professionals in 1989 to assist their colleagues. The nonprofit agency, in conjunction with the Board of Pharmacy, refers drug-abusing health professionals to treatment centers around the state and helps determine if a nurse, dentist or pharmacist (a separate program exists for doctors) is eligible for its "diversion" program.

To be eligible, says executive director Elizabeth Pace, clients must inform their managers or employers of their addictions and submit to drug testing, therapy and attendance at self-help meetings and support groups. Clients must agree to sign minimum three-year "contracts" with the program.

In return for their cooperation and successful completion of the program, no action is automatically required on a client's professional license--revocation and suspension are not mandatory. "The point of it," says Pace, "is to get people to come in sooner."

But even this program cannot stand in the way of justice. If, for example, a pharmacist had been stealing drugs to feed an addiction, he or she still could face criminal charges in state or federal court. "This is not a place to escape," Pace says.

And Komesu definitely needed an escape route. By early 1994, his co-workers had begun to notice that drugs were disappearing from the pharmacy.

According to court documents, two of Komesu's colleagues found 25 morphine-filled syringes under Komesu's desk in February 1994. After they locked the drugs in a safe, each received a late-night phone call from Komesu, who was looking for the syringes. The pair never saw the morphine again.

It wasn't until early May, however, that Komesu's house of cards collapsed. On May 3, hospital pharmacist Kenneth Suhr contacted his supervisors at the Owen Health Care Corporation (which provides pharmacy services for the hospital) and informed them of discrepancies he'd discovered in the pharmacy log books. Supervisors began a close check of the logs, which are used to trace the flow of drugs into and out of a pharmacy. The more they looked, the more they found. Komesu, for example, had stolen prescription slips from doctors who worked at the hospital, then used the slips to write prescriptions for nonexistent patients as a way of covering inventory losses.

On May 6, a pharmacy technician later told police, Komesu was "fired." The action was more form than substance. Komesu was already gone. He'd given notice weeks earlier and left the hospital to accept a job in Hawaii. Komesu says he planned to work as a "home health care" pharmacist, assisting homebound patients. He chose that job, he says, because it would have limited his access to narcotics, which he hoped would make it easier to kick his habit.

By May 10, when the Fort Morgan police, the DEA and the pharmacy board had all been notified of the problems, time was at a premium. Komesu and his family were scheduled to depart Colorado for his new post in Hawaii on May 14, leaving law enforcement officials with only four days in which to build a solid case for his arrest.

Pharmacy employees conducted a thorough inventory of the narcotics at the hospital, says Fort Morgan police sergeant Keith Kuretich, one of three officers assigned to the case. Investigators also checked prescriptions Komesu had filled and compared that information to hospital records.

Among their findings, Kuretich says, was that Komesu had written a prescription for two vials of cocaine for a patient who had been dead on arrival at the hospital. He'd written a bogus prescription for cocaine for an inmate from the county jail and had ordered a cocaine prescription for a woman on the obstetrics ward.

By May 13, investigators had developed enough information to arrest Komesu. They lured him to the city hall of Log Lane Village (a tiny incorporated community near Fort Morgan) on the pretext of clearing up a utilities matter. "He jogged right on up," Kuretich says. Although dressed in only a T-shirt and shorts and headed just down the block from his home, Komesu was carrying morphine and a syringe when arrested. "That shows you how dependent on drugs he was," Kuretich says.

Unfortunately for police, the Log Lane Village city hall is within sight of the Komesus' rental home. And when they arrested Andrew Komesu, officers spotted his wife watching from her front porch. Within fifteen minutes of the arrest, police posted a car outside the Komesu homestead in an effort to keep Mary--and any evidence--from going out the door.

They were at least five minutes too late.
end of part 1

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