Former paramedic pleads guilty to stealing pain-killing drugs, replacing vials with water

Crime and Courts

A former paramedic with two northwest Missouri ambulance districts pleaded guilty in federal court to stealing pain-killing drugs and replacing the vials with water.

Joseph L. Comstock, 31, of Bethany, Mo., waived his right to a grand jury and pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Beth Phillips to a federal information that charges him with three counts of tampering with a consumer product (fentanyl and morphine) with reckless disregard for the risk that another person would be placed in danger of death or bodily injury, and under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to such risk.

By pleading guilty today, Comstock admitted that he emptied vials of morphine and fentanyl, taking it for his own personal use, and replaced the pain-killing drugs with sterilized water. Comstock tampered with the drug vials while working at both the NTA Ambulance District in Bethany and the Community Ambulance District of Daviess County in Gallatin, Mo., in 2014 and 2015.

Comstock started tampering with drugs in March 2014, following a medical procedure to remove his tonsils. He accessed drugs on ambulances and was able to bend up the lid of the plastic boxes and dump out the drugs he wished to tamper with. He obtained both fentanyl and morphine from ambulances and replaced the drugs with sterile water.

Comstock admitted there were at least two occasions where he personally treated patients with drugs he knew he had tampered with. These patients were both hip fracture patients that were supposed to receive fentanyl but instead received sterile water that Comstock had replaced in the vial.

Federal officials were notified on March 4, 2015, of possible drug tampering at the NTA Ambulance District in Bethany. The chief of EMS reported that an employee had noticed two morphine syringes had broken tamper-evident seals. On Jan. 30, 2015, an employee noticed that two morphine syringes had broken tamper-evident seals. On Feb. 27, 2015, ambulance employees looked through narcotic boxes kept on the three NTA ambulances. They found a number of drugs that were missing tamper-evidence caps and had broken tamper-evident seals, including midazolam, lorazepam, morphine, and fentanyl.

Federal agents installed surveillance equipment at the Bethany NTA building on March 18, 2015. A camera was also placed on an ambulance, which was taken out of service. Comstock was recorded on the surveillance video as he stole morphine from the ambulance on two separate occasions on March 19 and March 23, 2015. Comstock later admitted that he had tampered with drugs on all the ambulances prior to that as well.

Comstock also admitted that he tampered with drugs when he visited the Gallatin ambulance building on Feb. 24, 2015. An employee found Comstock (who had stopped working at the Gallatin ambulance company in June 2014) inside the Gallatin ambulance building. Comstock explained he had come to the Gallatin facility to use the treadmill. Later that same day, the employee went on a service call and treated a man suffering from leg pain with 100 mcg of fentanyl; however, the man did not receive any pain relief. When the employee returned, he examined the narcotics cabinet and found several fentanyl vials with loose caps, as well as morphine that appeared to have been tampered with.

The Gallatin ambulance director told federal agents about another suspicious situation at his ambulance building involving Comstock that occurred a week earlier. On Feb. 17, 2015, Comstock stopped by the ambulance building to visit with another paramedic. The next day, another employee checked the narcotics cabinet and noticed two fentanyl vials without their tamper-resistant caps. Subsequently, several other fentanyl vials were discovered to have been tampered with.

Under federal statutes, Comstock is subject to a sentence of up to 10 years in federal prison without parole on each of the three counts. The maximum statutory sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes, as the sentencing of the defendants will be determined by the court based on the advisory sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors. Sentencing hearings will be scheduled after the completion of presentence investigations by the United States Probation Office.