Finally found fame, as scandal engulfed the state drug lab
In the exacting world of chemical analysis, soft-spoken chemist Annie Dookhan — or “Little Annie” as she was sometimes called — was a dream employee.
Consider her performance at the vaccine manufacturer where she worked for nearly two years before taking a job at the state drug lab. Most days, Dookhan arrived at work in the dawn’s dim light. When her boss left in the evening, her small frame was still hunched over the bench performing tests. She leapt at overtime hours and routinely got results in a fraction of the time it took others. What’s more, she was smart. Dookhan said she was working on a master’s degree, and just one year later announced that she had completed the work for a doctorate from Harvard University. A banner reading, “Congratulations, Annie,” went up on a cabinet.
The problem was that much of what she said was not true. Dookhan had neither a master’s nor a doctorate. How she managed to get results so fast, no one is quite sure.
“Our turnaround time on a sample was two weeks,” said Anthony Parham, Dookhan’s supervisor at the time. “Annie would get results in about half that time. I figured she was working so hard because she wanted to make her mark.”
Dookhan, 35, has most assuredly done that. Now at the center of the state drug lab scandal, she has confessed to altering tests results and mishandling evidence in some of the thousands of criminal cases she handled. But her trail of deceptions, large and small, goes well beyond that. Dookhan, who has pleaded not guilty to all but one of the 27 charges on which she has been indicted, may go down as one of the most prolific liars in public life. Her actions have not only raised questions about the reliability of evidence used in 34,000 criminal cases, but have already resulted in the release of 286 offenders, some of whom are drug dealers, to communities throughout Massachusetts.
In earlier years, her fabulations had much less devastating effects. She claimed honors she did not receive and in conversation gave her parents jobs they did not have. She inflated her salary and gave herself grandiose job titles, referring to herself in an e-mail as “an on-call supervisor for chemical and biological terrorism.” And while she conducted an online flirtation with one prosecutor for years, indicating at the start that she was a divorcee yearning for love, she simultaneously rattled off a succession of chatty e-mails to her husband.
As investigators continue to assess the full scope of the damage she has done, the question that hovers over it all is why. Part of the answer seems simple: to make herself seem more important. A petite 4 feet 11 inches and a native of Trinidad, Dookhan appeared determined even as a young immigrant girl to outrun expectations and the perceived anonymity of her circumstances. Notably intelligent, “Little Annie” Dookhan was going to make sure that she would never be overlooked.
For a long time the little white lies — largely embellishments to her personal narrative — seemed to work. But in 2009 several developments, including a second miscarriage and a court ruling that changed the rules for chemists and threatened her astonishing productivity, seemed to shake her profoundly. It was then that Dookhan began telling a much different kind of lie as she groped for control over circumstances both at home and at work that threatened to overwhelm her.
“Most people would describe me as little Annie, always with a smile and always there and willing to help. I definitely put others over myself,” Dookhan wrote in an e-mail to a prosecutor in 2009. “My way of dealing with this situation is just ‘bottling’ it all in . . . I will not allow people to see me cry.”
In the early 1990s, the Boston Latin Academy girls’ track team was enjoying a triumphant spell, twice winning the city’s track championship. The Lady Dragons were an eclectic group of fiercely competitive runners. But one of them, a thin girl with long dark hair named Annie Khan, as Dookhan was known until she married, often struggled to keep up.
Coach Ray Behenna remembers her well, partly because she was not very fast, or as he puts it: “Annie’s dedication was far greater than her ability.” But Behenna still marvels at her determination, for Khan practiced relentlessly and her teammates rallied to her effort. At one meet, a runner in the mile relay came up lame. Khan leapt to fill in, never mind that she had never run such a race before. “She just wanted to try,” recalled Behenna. “It was amazing because she not only did it, thanks to her the team won first place. That girl never quit.”
It was her dedication, in part, that won her a seat in the seventh grade at BLA, one of Boston’s exam schools, in 1990. The only child of Samdaye and Rasheed Khan, Annie Sadiyya Khan was born in San Fernando, Trinidad, in 1977, according to her marriage license, and was much doted upon by her parents. While it is unclear when the family moved to the United States, their names appear in school and state motor vehicle records beginning in 1989.
Rasheed Khan, described by neighbors as a man as amiable as he was ambitious, launched a deleading and heating company in Dorchester in 1990, the same year that his wife got a job as a data analyst with what is now called Partners HealthCare. The following year the couple bought a trim two-story home on Stoughton’s busy Park Street, according to town records. Although the Khans provided Boston school officials with a Boston address, which all students are required to have in order to attend, at least one Stoughton neighbor recalls Annie Khan returning home after school.
“I remember when they moved in, she was in high school,” recalled Frank Clark of Brockton, whose mother lived in the house next door at the time. “The parents were very proud of Annie’s academic achievements, you could just tell. Annie always smiled and waved when she came home, but she did not say much.”
Classmates recall “A.K.,” as she is dubbed in the 1996 yearbook, as exceptionally quiet, if they recall her at all. But Khan was an active participant in a host of school activities. In addition to competing on the track team, she was a member of the yearbook staff and the National Junior Classical League. Chemistry teacher Richard Russo remembers her as an A student with a “very good scientific mind. She was zealous in observation and conclusion.” But the woman who would come to fame as Annie Dookhan was surrounded by other equally ambitious classmates, a number of whom also came from low-income immigrant families.
“There were a lot of us from foreign homes, and we all wanted to do well,” said Shante Williams, who was on the track team with her as a student. “It was always a competition in that school because we all knew you had to do well to get a job.”
At some point after she graduated in 1996, Dookhan decided to give herself a bit of an edge in that larger competition and wrote on her resume that she had graduated “magna cum laude.” But BLA’s headmaster Emilia Pastor says no such honor is conferred by the school.
The fall after she graduated, Dookhan enrolled at Regis College in Weston. But after 2½ years she left, for reasons that are unclear. Citing privacy concerns, a Regis spokesman would confirm only that Dookhan had attended the school but left in December 1998. Dookhan continued her studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston where she majored in biochemistry and graduated cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in 2001.
John Warner, then a professor of biochemistry at the university, remembers her as one of his brightest students.
“In a class of ninety students, she was in the top five,” said Warner. “I remember her as a very hard-working student who got As. She was really quite driven.”
Several classmates remember Dookhan, who was a member of the Chemistry Club and Pre-Med Society at UMass Boston, as notably shy. When she did talk, said classmate Nicole S. Lee, “you had to listen hard because she was so quiet. She was nice, but not a particularly memorable person.”
But at least some classmates remember Dookhan quite differently. Another student in Warner’s class recalls her saying that she had been an undergraduate student at Harvard University and had left to attend UMass “for financial reasons.” The classmate, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal by Dookhan, said Dookhan also said that her mother was a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and that her father was also a physician. A spokesperson for Mass General says that it has no record of employing a Samdaye Khan since 1990, the most recent period for which records are readily available.
“Her attitude in general was that she was better than the rest of us, very pompous,” said the classmate, who is a product manager in Wisconsin. “In the higher-level courses she was like, ‘Oh, this is so easy. I finished my homework two weeks ago.’ Well the rest of us didn’t think it was so easy. Her attitude was just that this was all too low for her, UMass, the work, all of it.”
Like many other UMass students, Dookhan worked while she was an undergraduate. About a year before she graduated, she got a job at Brigham and Women’s Hospital as a unit coordinator in the cardiac surgical unit, according to her resume, and she remained there for several months after graduating. She also worked at the hospital during several summers as a laboratory aide and tumor registry assistant. A hospital spokesman said she could not confirm an individual’s past employment at the hospital without an individual’s consent.
By the spring of 2002, Dookhan had landed a job as a quality control analyst at MassBiologics Laboratory, a manufacturer of vaccines and other biological products located in Jamaica Plain. The job entailed the testing and analysis of raw materials used to make tetanus and diphtheria vaccines, among others. Dookhan was one of a number of young chemists who worked in a large open laboratory, according to Aaron Weagle, then a quality control supervisor at MassBiologics, which is operated by the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“Annie was smart,” Weagle said. “She understood chemistry well and she was clearly ambitious. If there was a new test to assay, a new raw material, she volunteered to do that. I remember her as ambitious.”
Anthony Parham, her immediate supervisor, considered Dookhan one of the hardest workers in the lab. Often when he arrived in the morning, she was already hard at work, and when he left at the end of the day she was still there. Parham, who worked closely with Dookhan, felt she was driven by a desire not for material gain, but for “personal prestige.”
“She wanted to be able to say that she was an accomplished person,” said Parham, who is African-American and now lives in Maryland. “Annie is a person who is not very tall. . . . She grew up very isolated, without many people of her background around her. I understand what it is like to be a minority in America. I think that experience reinforced her determination to show that she was just as good, or even better.”
At the time, Parham did not find it suspicious that Dookhan got results in half the time it took others. But in light of her confession to state police that she often identified drug evidence in the state lab without testing it — known as “dry labbing” — Parham says he is now less sure.
“It does make me wonder,” said Parham. “Could she have done it in our lab? It is not impossible.”
Mark Shelton, associate vice chancellor of communications for UMass Medical School, said that there is no indication that Dookhan did anything improper. He said the Food and Drug Administration keeps records of every vial of vaccine manufactured by MassBiologics and there has been no problem with the company’s product.
Parham recalls that Dookhan and another chemist in the lab had a fierce argument related to her work. While Parham cannot summon the specifics of the disagreement, he remembers that Dookhan was very angry, saying, ‘‘ ‘I will never forget this. Never.’ I think that was part of the reason that she left.’’
Parham and some others with whom Dookhan worked are also now reconsidering her academic credentials. Although she did not claim a master’s degree when she applied for the MassBiologics job, she apparently was emboldened by her success at the lab and began to embellish her achievements while there. She told Parham and several others in the lab that she was working toward a master’s at UMass.
In fact, Dookhan requested an application for the UMass master’s program but never took any additional courses after she graduated, much less earn an advanced degree. A supervisor at the state drug lab later noticed that Dookhan had changed her curriculum vitae from saying she was working on a master’s degree to claiming that she possessed the degree. When the supervisor, Elizabeth O’Brien, confronted her, Dookhan removed the degree. But O’Brien told State Police that Dookhan “at times sent her curriculum vitae out with a master’s degree on it.” Among the many charges Dookhan faces, one is a misdemeanor count for lying about her degree.
Somewhere along the way, she also gave herself a retroactive raise. Dookhan claimed on at least one resume to have earned $40,000 at MassBiologics, but company records show her salary was $32,800.
One MassBiologics employee said Dookhan even claimed to be working toward a doctorate at Harvard. Michael Gennaco, a quality control analyst at the time, said she announced during her second year that she had completed her dissertation.
“People were excited about that, saying what a genius she was, and someone put up a banner congratulating her,” said Gennaco. “Annie let it be known that she was the best. She was superproductive and supercompetitive and she took on a lot of responsibilities. She was going to run the lab. Well, we all got fooled, didn’t we?”
Miffed that she was not promoted more quickly at MassBiologics, Dookhan began to look around for another job. In November 2003, she landed a job as a chemist at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute. At the time the state drug lab, one of eighteen laboratories housed in the towering eight-story concrete building overlooking the Arnold Arboretum, was grappling with a backlog of drug samples and delays in testing that had plagued it for a couple of years.
The new pair of hands was most welcome.
Little Annie, dream employee, roared in like a lion. In 2004, her first full year on the job, Dookhan tested 9,239 drug samples, more than three times the number typically tested by the other chemists in the lab, according to figures provided by the state Department of Public Health. The following year her numbers were downright staggering. Dookhan performed a total of 11,232 tests, nearly double the second-most productive chemist in the lab who tallied a total of 6,053 tests and four times the mean for the lab’s nine other chemists.
If some of her colleagues were mystified by Dookhan’s output, few openly raised questions until years later. Supervisors apparently chalked up her productivity to the fact that the energetic Dookhan never took breaks for lunch or snacks and routinely took paperwork home with her, according to interviews with staffers by State Police.
What’s more, Dookhan routinely worked overtime hours for which she did not charge extra. After her first full year on the job, Dookhan was promoted to Chemist II. Another chemist began to refer to her as the “superwoman” of the lab.
“My colleagues call me ‘superwoman’ and say that I do too much for the lab and everyone else, in general,” Dookhan wrote in an e-mail to one assistant district attorney. “I am not a workaholic, but it is just in my nature to assist in any way possible.’’
Dookhan’s personal life was also blossoming. In the summer of 2004, she married Surrendranath Dookhan, a slender engineer and the youngest of three brothers who grew up playing cricket in Trinidad before coming to the United States, according to a cousin in Trinidad. Dookhan reveled in being part of a larger family, and the couple moved into a red-shuttered house in Franklin a few doors down from one of her new brothers-in-law.
The couple’s delight with their first pregnancy ended abruptly when Dookhan miscarried, according to an interview by Department of Public Health officials with Julie Nassif, the lab’s former director of analytical chemistry, who was dismissed in the wake of the Dookhan scandal.
Although supervisors were concerned that Dookhan returned to work too soon, Dookhan was not to be deterred.
“I have chocolate and work, and that is my way of dealing with it,” Dookhan said, according to Nassif.
Dookhan soon became pregnant again, and in 2006 she gave birth to a baby boy, Branden. Thrilled, she eagerly shared photos with her colleagues.
“She was over the roof about the baby,” recalled Weagle, her former colleague at MassBiologics.
Dookhan’s extraordinary lab performance declined somewhat after her son’s birth. But others in the lab were nonetheless growing increasingly suspicious of her productivity. Peter Piro, a Lab Supervisor I, suspected as early as 2007 that Dookhan was not doing all the tests she said she was.
Piro later told State Police that he never saw Dookhan in front of a microscope and that she was often away from her bench. Piro said a disproportionate number of samples Dookhan identified as cocaine turned out to be heroin when retested, long before the scandal broke.
Once, Piro noticed Dookhan had not performed a lab procedure correctly but had “made up test numbers that were within the acceptable range.” In another incident, a chemist in the lab reported to Piro that Dookhan had forged his initials on a control sheet. When Piro confronted Dookhan, “she did not respond, but took it back and resubmitted it correctly.”
One Saturday morning, when Piro came upon Dookhan in the lab, he noticed that she had not checked the accuracy of her scale. Piro told State Police that he had “had enough of Dookhan.” Piro marched over to her bench and placed the balancing weights on her scale. The two chemists, he said, “stared at each other and Piro felt that Dookhan got the message.”
Piro told police that he reported his concerns to lab supervisor Charles Salemi. But Salemi informed him that it was Julie Nassif’s job, not his, to discipline Dookhan.
Nor was Piro the only one with doubts about Dookhan long before she was found out. Chemist Michael Lawler told State Police that he was “staggered” by Dookhan’s test numbers in 2010. Lawler started watching the number of slides used to test cocaine in her discard pile, although he did not count them. Everyone in the lab, he told State Police, “had discomfort with Annie Dookhan’s monthly numbers. People were worried on a personal level that their supervisor didn’t value them because they were not producing numbers as high as Dookhan.”
In fact, Dookhan’s numbers had resumed their steady and suspect rise one year earlier, in 2009. In June of that year, the Supreme Court issued a ruling known as Melendez-Diaz that required chemists testing drug samples to testify about their findings in court.
Because the chemists were consequently spending less time in the lab, the number of tests they performed dropped off notably. But Dookhan’s numbers kept on climbing. By the year’s end she had run 6,321 tests, compared with a mean for the other chemists of 1,981.
Dookhan, however, had more on her mind than tests. Supervisor Elizabeth O’Brien told State Police that Dookhan had suffered another miscarriage in 2009. Dookhan, she added, was going through “personal problems, then court, and Melendez-Diaz was tough at first on her. . . . Perhaps she was trying to be important by being the go-to person.”
Dookhan may have been feeling stressed, but she managed keep her test numbers high by simply not doing some of the tests. Dookhan admitted to the State Police last August that she had “dry labbed” for two or three years, beginning in around 2009.
As she explained it, she identified cocaine and heroin samples according to what they were suspected to be and tested only a few of them as well as the “unknown” samples. A few times, when a sample was returned to her after a retest revealed it was not what she said it was, she contaminated it, “to make it what I said it was.”
Dookhan confessed that she dry labbed in order to “get more work done.”
At the time of her confession, Dookhan said that she was going through a long divorce. However, there is no apparent record of any divorce proceeding in court. One of Dookhan’s brothers-in-law, a pharmacist who asked not to be identified for fear it would negatively impact his business, said that he was aware that the couple had had some difficulties but that family members believed they were “moving on.”
“The miscarriages seemed to put some stress on the relationship,” he said in an interview. “Annie is a very private person. We were all there for her, but she did not discuss any of it with us. From what we could tell they were OK.”
Dookhan had long had a close relationship with prosecutors who often called her on her cellphone in violation of lab procedure, according to State Police interviews of several lab staffers. But in mid-2009, she became particularly friendly with Norfolk Assistant District Attorney George Papachristos, with whom she exchanged a series of flirtatious e-mails.
Once she sent him a copy of an e-mail in which she said she needed “someone to love me and make me laugh.” Papachristos has denied that the two had an affair but resigned last fall after the Globe disclosed their friendship.
The e-mails, which continued for two years, suggest that Dookhan held herself above her colleagues, much as she had in college. Not long after they met, Dookhan e-mailed Papachristos, “My work ethic is very different from my co-workers, I give 110 % in everything I do . . . I work hard.’’
About a month after the two began corresponding, Dookhan, who had started using her maiden name, confided in Papachristos that “she was having problems with her husband,” Papachristos told State Police in an interview.
Shortly, afterward, Papachristos said he got a series of text messages from Dookhan’s husband, Surren, on his cellphone saying, “This is Annie’s husband do not believe her, she’s a liar, she’s always lying. She is looking for sympathy and attention.”
Not long afterward, however, Dookhan and Papachristos resumed their chatty communication. She sent him friendly cards and once, after she had apparently not heard from him in awhile, e-mailed him in the evening, “Georgeeee!!!” On learning that he had been ill, she exclaimed, “OMG!!! I am glad you are doing better. Would ya take it easy, man! :) If there is anything you need or I can do, just ask. !!!”
At the same time she exchanged e-mail jokes with her husband, attended neighborhood barbecues with him, and planned a family trip to Aruba, according to her e-mails.
By the end of 2010, Dookhan’s test numbers were through the roof. By year’s end she claimed to have performed 10,933 tests, almost five times the mean of 2,230 tests done by the other chemists. By then, several staffers had taken their concerns to Salemi, the lab supervisor, who conducted an audit of Dookhan’s work. Salemi, who is now facing disciplinary action, reviewed only Dookhan’s paperwork and did not retest her samples. The conclusion of the audit: Dookhan’s work was just fine.
As Dookhan’s numbers continued their relentless climb in 2011, several supervisors met to discuss the situation. Julie Nassif, the former director of analytical chemistry, decided to give Dookhan a special project, “to try and slow her down,” according to a State Police interview with Salemi. It didn’t slow her much. Then, in June, Dookhan was found to have removed 90 drug samples from the evidence room without authorization. It was the beginning of the end.
Two days after Dookhan confessed to State Police last August, Lieutenant Robert M. Irwin, one of two detectives who had questioned her, called her in the morning to make a “well-being check.” Irwin also wanted to let her know that there was going to be a press conference related to the case that afternoon.
Dookhan sounded composed, according to Irwin’s report, saying that, under an agreement she had made with the Department of Public Health when she resigned under pressure in March, her name would not be given out.
At 3:28 p.m., Dookhan called Irwin, now upset. Reporters and photographers were swarming around her house and she did not understand why. Irwin explained that the lab had been closed and that reporters were pursuing the story. Dookhan thanked Irwin for his honesty and hung up.
At 4:45 p.m., Dookhan called again. This time she was crying. “Not hard, more of a whimper,” Irwin wrote. “She was despondent and looking for advice.” Reporters were still at her door.
Dookhan asked what she might be charged with. Irwin suggested that she should be with family members at a critical time like this, but Dookhan just cried harder. When Irwin asked her if she ever considered harming herself, she said “no.”
“I advised Dookhan that my phone is always on and she could call me at any time,” Irwin wrote. “She said she didn’t want to be a pest. I told her it was OK.”
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