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Worker at center of hepatitis scare enters guilty plea

CONCORD, N.H. — A former traveling health care worker pleaded guilty Wednesday to an elaborate drug-stealing scheme that prosecutors say caused at least 45 patients in hospitals in Kansas, Maryland, and New Hampshire to be infected with his strain of hepatitis C.

David Kwiatkowski, 34, pleaded guilty in federal court to tampering with a consumer product and obtaining a controlled substance. He agreed to serve between 30 and 40 years in prison. A judge may choose to adjust the prison term at his sentencing on Dec. 3.

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Kwiatkowski admitted Wednesday that he had hopped from job to job as a traveling technician, often working in cardiac catheterization labs where he routinely stole syringes loaded with narcotics. He replaced them with syringes he had already used and refilled with saline solution and that he had contaminated with the potentially lethal virus he acquired during years of drug abuse.

To some of his victims, the plea agreement secured a fair punishment.

Jean Burke, whose husband, Richard, contracted Kwiatkowksi’s strain of hepatitis C at Exeter Hospital when he underwent a cardiac catheterization said, “I think it’s justified. It’s not going to undo what’s been done, but at least he won’t be able to do it to anyone else.”

She said her husband suffers from near constant fatigue and aches. “It’’s tough. Every day we have to live it.”

But another victim, Linda Ficken said the sentence was too lenient.

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“He deserves to get more time than that. He does not ever need to be put back out into society,” said Ficken, a 71-year-old retired house painter who contracted hepatitis C at the Hays Medical Center in Kansas in 2010.

US Attorney John P. Kacavas said his office had negotiated the best deal available under the law.

“I can’t give [victims] their health back. I can’t give them compensation. . . . What we can give them is some measure of justice within the criminal justice system. And that is a term of years of incarceration. I understand their frustration and I understand victims who want nothing less than a life sentence or the death penalty. I get that. But our system does not allow for that.”

Kwiatkowski made no statement, and no victims spoke at the hourlong hearing; both Kwiatkowksi and victims will be permitted to speak at his sentencing.

Kwiatkowksi remained unemotional during the Wednesday hearing, offering short answers to questions by federal Judge Joseph Laplante. When Laplante asked him why he was pleading guilty, Kwiatkowski replied, “Because I’m guilty.”

Kwiatkowksi said that he had suffered in the past from a drug and alcohol problem. He said he currently suffers from depression and has been prescribed Lithium, among other drugs, for the condition.

According to the plea deal, one of the patients infected by Kwiatkowski, who was at Hays Medical Center in Kansas, has since died and a coroner concluded that hepatitis C played a role in the death. The plea agreement also identifies seven patients from Exeter Hospital who were allegedly infected by Kwiatkowski and have since suffered medical complication.

Kwiatkowski came to Exeter Hospital in 2011 as a temporary worker and later as a permanent employee, authorities said. It was there his drug diversion was halted when several patients in the cardiac catheterization lab inexplicably tested positive for a specific strain of hepatitis C. Public health officials traced the source to Kwiatkowski.

According to the plea agreement, Kwiatkowski told investigators, “I’m going to kill a lot of people out of this.” The agent responded, “I’m sorry?” To which Kwiatkowski repeated, “I’m killing a lot of people.”

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sarah.schweitzer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarahschweitzer.
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