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Washington State News

Former Nurse Sentenced to 18 Months in Federal Prison for Tampering with Morphine Medications at Moses Lake Clinic

SPOKANE – Vanessa R. Waldref, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, announced Friday that Esther Rae Tuller, age 41, of Moses Lake, Washington, was sentenced in federal court in Spokane for tampering with morphine medication while working as a registered nurse. Chief United States District Judge Stanley A. Bastian sentenced Tuller to 18 months in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release. 

According to court documents, between August 2019 and April 2020, Tuller was a Washington-licensed registered nurse employed at the Confluence Health Clinic in Moses Lake. Her position as a nurse provided her with access to medications, including opioid narcotics such as morphine, an opioid derivative commonly prescribed by hospitals and health care facilities to relieve pain.

While working at Confluence Health, Tuller used syringes to remove morphine from at least 17 vials and then ingested that morphine as part of her own opioid addiction. She then replaced the morphine with a saline solution that was essentially salt dissolved in water and attempted to glue the caps back onto the vials to make them appear intact. Before Tuller was apprehended by law enforcement, at least one Confluence Health patient who was prescribed morphine had to be rushed to the emergency room; that patient continued to be in excruciating pain after receiving only saline from what was supposed to be morphine vials. In sentencing Ms. Tuller, Chief Judge Bastian noted that Tuller’s conduct did not simply involve stealing medications but putting patients at risk.

United States Attorney Vanessa R. Waldref emphasized that fostering safe and strong communities in Eastern Washington means addressing the opioid epidemic in all of its forms.  “While Ms. Tuller’s addiction to opioids is both tragic and far too common, her decision to take advantage of her access to medical-grade morphine was an egregious breach of trust.  It is deeply troubling that she compounded her misconduct by secretly replacing that morphine with saline in vials that she knew would be distributed to patients, recklessly endangering patients who rely on the integrity of our health care system every day.”  United States Attorney Waldref continued: “I want to especially commend the stellar investigative work by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Diversion Group and the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations.  We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to hold accountable those who abuse their position of trust and endanger patients.”   

“Our DEA Diversion Investigators are another tool we are utilizing to address the opioid epidemic we are now facing,” said Jacob D. Galvan, Acting Special Agent in Charge, DEA Seattle Field Division. “Their actions and investigations helped remove an individual from a position of trust and stop any further harm from happening to vulnerable individuals.”

“The FDA oversees the U.S. drug supply to ensure that it is safe and effective, and those who knowingly tamper with medicines put patients’ health at risk,” said Special Agent in Charge Lisa L. Malinowski, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations Los Angeles Field Office. “We will continue to protect the public health and bring to justice health care professionals who take advantage of their unique position and compromise their patients’ health and comfort by tampering with needed drugs.” 

This investigation was conducted by the DEA’s Diversion Group in the Seattle Field Office, and the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, Seattle Domicile.  Assistant United States Attorneys Dan Fruchter and Tyler H.L. Tornabene prosecuted this matter on behalf of the United States.