MILWAUKEE (CN) — A Wisconsin pharmacist charged with attempting to spoil hundreds of doses of a coronavirus vaccine pleaded guilty to two tampering counts in Milwaukee federal court on Tuesday.
Steven Brandenburg, 46, waived his right to indictment by a grand jury and voluntarily pleaded guilty to two counts of attempting to tamper with a consumer product affecting interstate commerce brought by federal prosecutors in late January. U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig scheduled his sentencing for June 8 at the close of the 90-minute virtual hearing.
Prosecutors have charged that Brandenburg in late December purposefully removed 57 vials of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine from a refrigerator at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, where he worked as the night-duty pharmacist.
Brandenburg, an avowed conspiracy theorist, intended to spoil the vials, containing about 10 doses each, because he believed the vaccine unsafe, according to statements he made to Grafton police. The vials must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures and Brandenburg purposely removed them from a refrigeration unit. Aurora employees have since updated that they believe the vaccines were not spoiled, but more tests are being conducted.
After Brandenburg was briefly detained in an Ozaukee County jail, Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol charged him with misdemeanor attempted criminal damage to property on Jan. 19. Around the same time, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Milwaukee brought its two felony charges, each carrying a potential sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment, 3 years’ extended supervision and $250,000 in fines. His pharmacist license has been permanently suspended by a state licensing board.
Widespread media coverage in the past month has brought focus to evidence of Brandenburg’s fringe, conspiratorial worldview. This includes beliefs that the Earth is flat; that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were faked; that the sky is not real but rather a government shield installed to prevent communing with God; and that vaccines were generally “of the Devil,” specifically contending the Moderna vaccine contained microchips which render recipients infertile.
Brandenburg has suffered from depression and other mental health issues in the past, and he was going through a contentious divorce from his wife and subsequent custody battle for their children at the time he attempted to tamper with the vaccines. He is currently living with his parents on Milwaukee’s southwest side, according to facts presented at Tuesday’s arraignment.
The former pharmacist admitted to his crimes and stated he understood the charges against him and his plea agreement on Tuesday, making no additional comments before the court.
Prosecutors spent the lion’s share of Tuesday’s hearing arguing for Brandenburg to be remanded into federal custody until sentencing given the seriousness of his crimes directly related to the deadly pandemic, the effect on his victims and co-workers in the medical community, his mental health and the continued danger he presents to society.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Knight emphasized that Brandenburg “occupied a position of public trust as a licensed pharmacist” and “took it upon himself to destroy 500 doses of life-saving vaccine,” also attempting to cover up his crime in the process.
Knight pointed to social media comments the prosecution says indicate people’s confidence in the vaccine has been shaken since Brandenburg’s position as a pharmacist, to them, lends authenticity to his anti-vaccine beliefs. This combined with his history of mental health, ownership of multiple guns and extremist views calls for him not to be allowed free before sentencing, Knight said.
Jason Baltz, Brandenburg’s counsel from his namesake firm in Mequon, resisted prosecutors’ remand request, arguing Brandenburg is not a flight risk, has no prior criminal convictions, has resolved the divorce and custody proceedings with his ex-wife, and will have no ability to commit similar crimes since he has been fired from Aurora Medical Center and had his pharmacist license revoked.
The social media comments are irrelevant, Baltz said, because they were not elicited by Brandenburg but rather came from random people on a random website.
Given that his ex-wife has claimed he has more guns and bulk food in storage units, Knight proffered that “the court just can’t have confidence…that [Brandenburg’s] capacity to hurt people around him has been fully mitigated.”
A filing by prosecutors the night before Tuesday’s arraignment laid out multiple occasions in the past in which Brandenburg enlisted other medical professionals to replace annual flu vaccines with saline solution by swapping the labels on the syringes and charged that he had a habit of bringing guns to work.
Ludwig, a Donald Trump appointee, ultimately did not find Brandenburg needed to be in custody, positing in part that past mental health issues are not enough to jail someone pending sentencing and that he does not think “having unpopular views, even views we might consider crazy…warrants necessarily detaining somebody.”
The judge ordered Brandenburg to submit to GPS monitoring largely confining him to his parents’ house, have no contact with victims or any Aurora facilities or employees, give federal officials access to all of his electronics and surrender any more firearms he may still have as conditions of staying out of federal custody until sentencing.Follow @cnsjkelly
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