CO: Colorado Nurses Held Accountable for Taking Controlled Substances from Patients

In two separate cases, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado held nurses accountable after they stole controlled substances from their patients.

  • Katie Muhs, age 34, of Littleton, CO, was sentenced for her felony conviction for illegally obtaining fentanyl through fraud and deception while on the job as a Registered Nurse in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
  • Alicia Nickel-Tangeman, age 44, formerly of Woodland Park, Colorado, entered guilty pleas to four counts of obtaining controlled substances using fraud and deception while she was on the job as a Registered  Nurse at a hospital in Colorado.

Ms. Muhs was employed as a registered nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital in Colorado in 2019 when she used her position to divert fentanyl, a schedule II controlled substance, for her own personal use.  The defendant admitted that between June 2019 and September 2019, she stole fentanyl by removing it from the IV bags of ventilated patients using a sterile syringe. She also admitted to stealing fentanyl remaining in vials of the drug after patient administration. The defendant stated she would remove the excess drug from the vials and replace the stolen drug with saline, then have a fellow nurse witness her “waste,” or dispose of, the saline. In pleading guilty to the single-count Information in the case, charging a violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(a)(3), the defendant specifically admitted that on September 8, 2019, she removed a bag of fentanyl from the automated medication control machine at the hospital under a different nurse’s login credentials. She then removed fentanyl from the IV bag for personal use.

Ms. Nickel-Tangeman used her position as Registered Nurse to access the rooms of patients she was not assigned to care for in a separate unit of a Colorado hospital. The defendant falsely and fraudulently told patients that she was conducting a “study” on the effectiveness of Patient-Controlled Analgesia (PCA) pumps, which deliver controlled substances to hospital patients to relieve pain on-demand when the patient pushes a button.  The defendant then used a key to open the machine that secured the syringe of hydromorphone that was to be dispensed to the patient. The defendant removed a portion of the drug from the syringe, which she kept, then returned the syringe to the patient’s PCA. The defendant illegally obtained controlled substances in this way from three patients on four occasions. When confronted by law enforcement regarding her actions, the defendant lied about the diversions and persisted in her false story that she was engaged in a study with a well-known university. The defendant engaged in obstructionist conduct by producing to law enforcement a false e-mail that she stated came from a friend who asked her to participate in the research.  The defendant created the false e-mail herself using a fictitious e-mail account she created in the name of this alleged friend.

“We cannot allow health care professionals to feed their own addictions by diverting critical pain medications from patients,” said Acting United States Attorney Matt Kirsch.  “Thanks to the hard work of our office, the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, and the DEA, the theft of medications from suffering patients in these cases has been stopped.”

“The FDA oversees the U.S. drug supply to ensure that it is safe and effective, and those health care professionals who fraudulently obtain needed medicines from patients put those patients’ health at risk,” said Special Agent in Charge Charles L. Grinstead, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations Kansas City Field Office. “Today’s announcement should serve as a reminder that such conduct will not be tolerated.”

“The DEA applauds the efforts of our Diversion Investigators that investigated this alongside the FDA and USAO,” said DEA Denver Field Division Special Agent in Charge Deanne Reuter. “We want it to be known that healthcare professionals who take advantage of patients in need by stealing their medications will be held accountable to the law.”

On August 27, 2021, U.S. District Judge Raymond Moore sentenced Ms. Muhls to three months of probation. The government agreed to recommend a probationary sentence in consideration of the defendant’s confession and her cooperation in disclosing full information on her diversion, which is a matter potentially affecting the public health and the integrity of the health care system. The felony offense is punishable by up to four years of imprisonment and a fine of $250,000, per count.  The case number is  20-cr-00380-RM.

On August 26, 2021, Ms. Nickel-Tangemen pleaded guilty before U.S. District Court Judge Christine M. Arguello.  Ms. Nickel-Tangemen will be sentenced on November 30, 2021.  The case number is 21-cr-00214-CMA.

The investigations in these cases were conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, Office of Criminal Investigations, and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Assistant United States Attorney Anna Edgar is prosecuting both of these matters.

CASE NUMBERS:  21-cr-00214-CMA, 20-cr-00380-RM

DOJ Press Release

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