A paramedic for Boston Emergency Medical Services who is suspected of stealing and tampering with painkillers had marks on his arms consistent with drug use, and his medical skills eroded as he displayed erratic behavior, a prosecutor said Friday.
“He admitted that he had actually shot himself with that fentanyl,’’ said Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Michele Granda, referring to an alleged encounter on Aug. 18, 2011, between the defendant, Brian Benoit, and a co-worker who had confronted him after an emergency call.
But the defense attorney for the 15-year veteran said Benoit does not have a substance abuse problem, and, he said, the records and people’s memories are flawed.
Benoit “vehemently and vigorously denies these allegations,’’ attorney Thomas Drechsler said following Benoit’s arraignment in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston. Dreschsler said an unnamed person who had made accusations against his client had suspect motivations.
Benoit, 40, of South Boston, is accused of stealing or tampering with drug vials or preloaded syringes he had access to during a six-week period in summer 2011. Prosecutors say he then attempted to conceal his theft by refilling vials and syringes with saline solution or other liquids.
The paramedic’s co-workers noticed changes in his behavior, prosecutors say. He would stay inside his car for prolonged periods, smoking cigarettes incessantly; he would ask for the keys to ambulances to move them from hospital bays so he could wash his car and repeatedly said he had forgotten his cellphone inside drug lock boxes in his ambulance.
In addition, a nurse at BMC noticed marks on his arms as co-workers said he began wearing bandages on his arms. Benoit’s skill in treating patients diminished, his co-workers told investigators.
When the allegations surfaced in September 2011, they spurred widespread concern, especially in Roxbury, where Benoit was working. Authorities scrambled to gather the supply he had contact with and discovered evidence that he tampered with more than 106 vials and syringes, prosecutors said.
Of 10 patients who were exposed to the manipulated supply, none experienced any adverse reaction or medical problems, prosecutors said. Benoit voluntarily underwent testing for infectious diseases and had negative results.
Benoit pleaded not guilty 73 times. He is charged with one count of larceny, 26 counts of larceny of a controlled substance, 24 counts of creating a counterfeit substance and 22 counts of manufacturing a class B, C, or E substance.
Trial Magistrate Gary D. Wilson allowed Benoit to remain free on personal recognizance and ordered him not to work as an emergency medical technician or paramedic while the case is pending. Benoit is due back in court Jan. 7. He declined to comment after the arraignment.
Granda said the number of patients who were given allegedly doctored drugs was fewer than originally feared by the Boston Public Health Commission when they made limited public disclosure of the issue earlier this year.
The commission contacted 57 patients initially believed to have received altered medication from Benoit when they were transported in Boston EMS ambulances. But further investigation narrowed the number of patients directly affected by Benoit to 10.
Benoit is accused of tampering with vials of powerful painkillers stored on ambulances and in other secure locations, including nine lock boxes. He gained or attempted to gain access to the storage sites mostly on his days off or during off-hours, Granda said.
Granda said the investigation found that “40 vials of morphine, 45 vials of fentanyl, 10 vials of midazolam, and nine syringes of lorazepam had either a puncture hole in the cap of the vial or a broken seal on the syringe.’’
Boston EMS and the BMC Pharmacy, she said, kept rigorous control over drug supplies, and their employees are well-trained on policy and procedures. Both institutions have storage spaces where paramedics can restock their supplies after entering a password and undergoing a fingerprint scan.
Drechsler questioned the reliability of the control system and disputed witness accounts.
“Keep in mind that the entire case is based on accusations and observations by certain individuals, a certain individual, whose credibility and motivation I intend to vigorously attack,’’ he said after the arraignment, declining to name the person he referred to. “I’ve been representing public employees for many, many years, and I’ve yet to find a public entity where all the rules and procedures are strictly adhered to or even known to all the employees.”
Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the commission that oversees Boston Emergency Medical Services, said policies and protocols have been tightened as a result of the case.
“We have a whole new set of training for all paramedics as to what drug tampering looks like,’’ she said. “From our perspective, what really was important is that we minimize any opportunity for drugs to be tampered with.”
Ferrer said Benoit would have undergone mandatory annual drug testing throughout his employment, as all employees do. She declined to say what his tests results were or whether he had ever been disciplined. Positive test results called for immediate suspension.
Benoit has been relieved of all EMS duties since Sept. 6, 2011, when the tampering was discovered, officials said. By Friday, Benoit was on unpaid suspension, said Nick Martin, communications director for the Boston Public Health Commission.
The state Department of Public Health is reviewing the status of Benoit’s paramedic license.Brian Ballou can be reached at email@example.com.