BELCHERTOWN — Chemist Sonja Farak stole and apparently used illegal drugs entrusted to her by the state to test as evidence in criminal cases, replacing the drugs with look-alike substances in an attempt to hide her actions, authorities said in court documents.
Last week, authorities followed a trail of evidence that took them from Farak’s work station at the State Police-run lab in Amherst to her car, where they recovered cocaine and heroin that had been previously submitted by law enforcement to the lab for testing, according to the newly released documents.
Farak, 35, parked her Volkswagen Golf outside Springfield District Court on Friday, where she was scheduled to testify as an expert witness in an unrelated drug case. Troopers confronted her inside that courthouse and seized her car, which they searched, discovering the drugs and other lab materials, the documents state.
Farak was arraigned in Eastern Hampshire District Court on Tuesday and charged with two counts each of withholding evidence and drug possession. Her attorney, Elaine Pourinski, pleaded not guilty on her behalf.
Pourinski told Judge John Payne that Farak does not have a criminal record and is regarded as an upstanding citizen in her neighborhood in Northampton. Two hours after the arraignment, Farak’s parents posted $5,000 cash bail.
With an unprecedented drug lab scandal already revolving around Annie Dookhan, the chemist who allegedly tampered with hundreds of evidence samples at the Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, leading to the release of almost 200 defendants, Farak’s alleged wrongdoings further tarnish a system critically important to prosecutors.
So far there is evidence suggesting that Farak allegedly corrupted only two cases, but an investigation by State Police is ongoing. That investigation may lead authorities back to Boston and the Hinton lab, where both chemists worked in 2003 and 2004.
Though Farak spent most of her career in Amherst, she analyzed more than 11,000 drug samples from Boston cases, according to records from the Jamaica Plain lab. As a result, questions about the integrity of her work could have an impact in Boston.
While working at the Jamaica Plain lab, records show Farak analyzed more than 9,000 samples, frequently producing more test results per month than Dookhan, who is now facing criminal indictment for allegedly falsifying test results. After Farak was transferred to Amherst in 2004, she still analyzed drug evidence from nearly 2,000 Boston cases, according to the records.
The Hinton lab, which had been run by the state’s Department of Health, was shut down early last year by Governor Deval Patrick after the allegations against Dookhan surfaced. The task of analyzing drug samples was transferred to State Police labs.
Curtis Wood, undersecretary of forensic science and technology for the executive office of public safety and security, said Tuesday that the Amherst lab, which handles 3,000 cases a year, has been shut down and the chemists and case load have been sent to a Sudbury lab.
Patrick said that he, like the public, was surprised that another chemist has been charged with a crime. “My first reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.
He said that after learning more about the case, he believes it is completely different from the scandal involving Dookhan.
“The most important take-home I think is that no individual’s due process rights were compromised” in the Amherst lab, he said.
He also rejected Republican legislation calling for more drug lab oversight, but said he would be willing to talk with its sponsors.
In 2011, Dookhan tried to help Farak analyze a drug she had never examined before. A supervisor, Peter Piro, asked Dookhan to assist Farak in analyzing something called “lisdexamfetamine.”
Farak was concerned because when she ran the sample, she said she got a “very poor” match, Piro said, adding that she said she was “concerned that it may not be what it is supposed to be. Only thing [evidence] on the guy too.”
Farak’s attorney said Tuesday that the media attention that followed her client has been exacerbated by the Dookhan scandal.
“If we didn’t have the case from the eastern part of the state, there would not be so much scrutiny,” Pourinski said during the arraignment, as a half-dozen cameras focused on her and Farak, sitting in a holding bin with her hands cuffed.
Several of the defendant’s neighbors submitted statements to the court supporting Farak.
“As a licensed clinical social worker for 28 years, I am often in the position of vouching for an individual’s character and am happy to do so for Ms. Farak,” said Marcie D. Cooper, who lives several houses away from Farak on Laurel Park, a street within a condominium community.
Neighbors talked about how Farak always took it upon herself to clear snow from their driveways, walk their dogs while they were on vacation, and drive incapacitated neighbors to medical appointments.
But in the prosecutor’s statement of facts on the case, contained in the same file as those letters, authorities say one of Farak’s coworkers noticed something wrong with two samples last Thursday.
The coworker was attempting to find the samples to match with the certification Farak had completed. After she was unable to locate the samples, the coworker alerted a supervisor. They looked in Farak’s work station cabinet and allegedly found cocaine and a counterfeit substance.
To protect the vital “chain-of-custody” at the lab, proper procedure dictates that samples checked out to a chemist be stored in a temporary evidence locker when they are away from their stations.