Forensic Scientist Admits Stealing Drug Evidence

     PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — A forensic scientist with the Oregon State Police admitted Monday to stealing narcotics from hundreds of cases, calling those investigations into question and forcing district attorneys to set aside guilty verdicts in some cases.
     Nika Elise Larson, 36, pleaded guilty Monday to two counts of obtaining a controlled substance by misrepresentation, fraud and deception. Under the deal, U.S. attorneys will recommend she serve three years in prison.
     The agreement will also protect Larsen from future prosecution that could arise from the hundreds of cases her crimes may have affected across the state.
     Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel announced plans in March to review over 1,000 cases Larsen worked on in the Bend area. Since then, over 100 cases have been set aside in which prosecutors say they can’t be sure the evidence wasn’t altered by Larsen’s tampering.
     Larsen worked for eight years testing drugs for investigations at the Oregon State Police laboratories in Pendleton and Bend — two of the five Oregon crime labs. She also reviewed the work of other forensic scientists and testified in court about her findings.
     From December 2013 until she was placed on administrative leave in the fall of 2015, Larsen was pocketing the street drugs she was responsible for testing, prosecutors said.
     In some cases, she covered her tracks by replacing the drugs with over-the-counter pills, U.S. Attorney Pamala Holsinger told U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown at Monday’s hearing in the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse. Larsen admitted stealing the pure drugs the lab kept on hand to assess the potency of street drugs.
     In April 2015, investigators discovered missing oxycodone pills in one of the cases Larsen had worked on. That triggered an investigation that found over 700 pills missing from 57 evidence bags in cases where Larsen was either the primary scientist or where she reviewed another scientist’s work.
     Larsen said Monday that she took oxycodone, morphine, methamphetamine, diazepam and tramadol, among other drugs.
     She got away with it for nearly two years because investigators rarely go back and re-check evidence unless a case goes to trial, Holsinger said.
     Oregon has the second highest rate of opiate addiction in the nation, according to the Oregon Medical Association.
     Larsen’s case spurred Gov. Kate Brown to create a task force that will review the work of the Oregon State Police Crime Lab. If necessary, the work group will help draft new legislation.
     Kara Davis, assistant director at Intermountain Public Defender in Pendleton, said that the task force is an important step.
     “Everybody just assumes the crime lab has done things correctly,” Davis said in a phone interview. “That they haven’t lied and they have no vested interest.”
     And the task force could have a larger issue to look into.
     “We’re concerned not just about the lab here, but our understanding is that the whole investigation started from a tip,” Davis said. “If people in the lab knew what she was doing and didn’t say anything, then they are complicit as well. But we don’t know that yet.”
     Larsen is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 12.
     

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