The court weighed the seriousness of the pharmacist’s crime against his sincere remorse in sentencing him for admittedly trying to ruin more than 500 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine last December.
MILWAUKEE (CN)— A federal judge on Tuesday handed down a three-year prison sentence to a Wisconsin pharmacist who admitted to two tampering counts after he was caught trying to spoil coronavirus vaccine doses last year because he believed the vaccine was dangerous.
Prosecutors charged Steven Brandenburg, 46, in December with purposefully removing 57 vials of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine from a refrigerator at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, where he worked as a night pharmacist.
Brandenburg, an avowed conspiracy theorist, intended to spoil the vials, containing about 10 doses each, because he believed they, and vaccines in general, were unsafe. He pleaded guilty to two counts of tampering with a consumer product affecting interstate commerce at his arraignment in February and was allowed to remain free on bond while subjected to GPS monitoring confining him to his parent’s house on Milwaukee’s southwest side.
A filing by prosecutors in February also laid out that Brandenburg had tried multiple times to get other medical professionals to help him replace flu vaccines with saline solution by swapping the labels.
It was ultimately determined that no one was killed or harmed by Brandenburg’s actions and that the vaccines in question had not spoiled as he intended. The statutory maximum for each tampering count he faced was 10 years, plus extended supervision and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
At Brandenburg’s 90-minute sentencing hearing in Milwaukee federal court on Tuesday, the full but socially distanced courtroom heard first from Dr. Michelle Blakely, president of Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, who appeared as a victim of Brandenburg’s crimes.
Blakely described the dire uncertainty and lives hanging in the balance all health care organizations endured as the pandemic raged throughout 2020 before vaccines emerged. She said spoiling vaccine doses they had awaited with such anticipation “called into question everything that seemed like a solution,” describing how “this has been absolutely devastating” for Aurora Medical Center and its employees.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Knight asked the court to consider the health care professionals putting their lives on the line in the heat of the pandemic affected by Brandenburg’s crimes, as well as the hundreds of people who feared the relief of a vaccine had been taken away by Brandenburg possibly spoiling their doses.
The prosecutor compared Brandenburg to a war profiteer selling defective body armor to those going into battle, all because he believed his “idiosyncratic worldview” was worth more than the medical emergency at hand. Knight referenced Brandenburg’s abuse of trust as a trained pharmacist attempting to ruin vaccines as the medical world was desperately trying to get them into arms, as well as his ex-wife’s fear of him as he stockpiled firearms amid their contentious divorce and custody battle over their two daughters at the height of the pandemic last year.
Brandenburg has admitted to holding conspiratorial views aside from disbelieving the safety of vaccines, including that 9/11 was faked and the Earth is flat. He also admitted to previously bringing a gun to work at Aurora after his arrest, at which point he voluntarily handed over his eight firearms.
Jason Baltz, Brandenburg’s counsel from his namesake firm in Mequon, argued the global chaos of the pandemic, his client’s difficult divorce and custody battle, acute experience as a health care provider during the crisis, history of mental illness and fringe worldview influenced his irrational decision, even if it is “tough for a rational person to understand.”
The defense pointed to Brandenburg’s good behavior and resolution of his divorce since his arrest as cases for a more lenient sentence, additionally arguing that he “did not influence a single person to not get the vaccine,” something the prosecution disputed based on quotes in the record provided by the FBI in which multiple people commended Brandenburg’s action, particularly because of his role as a medical professional.
Brandenburg apologized and expressed deep remorse in a brief statement on Tuesday, offering that “no matter how scattered my life was, no matter what the state of the world was…I take full responsibility for my actions.” He admitted he was wrong to try to destroy vaccines he did not believe in at the cost of jeopardizing someone who wanted one during a generational public health crisis.
“I did not have the right to make this decision for them,” he said.
The three-year sentence U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig ultimately handed down — covering the two counts Brandenburg faced to run concurrently — came in below the 41 to 51 months imprisonment recommended by the government in what the judge called a “complicated, unusual case.”
Ludwig found that Brandenburg “abused trust, abdicated responsibility” and “threatened to impose defeat out of the jaws of victory” as effective vaccines appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The judge called it a “complete fortuity” that no physical harm came of his attempt to tamper with the vaccines, acknowledging that Brandenburg may have even gone further in his actions had he not been caught.
But the Donald Trump appointee also trusted the sincerity of Brandenburg’s remorse and thought he had turned a corner. The judge concluded that 36 months in prison was a sufficient sentence, on top of three years of supervised release, mandatory mental health treatment, $84,000 in restitution to Aurora Medical Center and a $200 special assessment.
Brandenburg was not remanded but Ludwig ordered him to self-report to federal custody by 2 p.m. on Tuesday. Additional fines he faced were waived by the court.