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ND hospice nurses accused of stealing drugs from patients seek to have charge dropped

MINOT, N.D.—A disagreement has surfaced over whether a charge of endangering a vulnerable adult should stand against two former Trinity Hospice nurses in Minot charged with stealing drugs from patients because of the reported ages of the alleged victims.

In the charging documents against Kim Kochel and April Beckler, the state alleges that the victim was over age 60. However, Beckler's defense attorney, Raissa Carpenter, noted in a court hearing Monday, Feb. 26, that the language in the statute has changed and now requires a "vulnerable adult" to be 65 or over.

District Court Judge Todd Cresap delayed finding probable cause in the case and asked both lawyers to file written motions with the court. He scheduled an arraignment for March 27. Kochel's attorney, Tom Slorby, has issued subpoenas for people associated with the case for the arraignment.

Both Kochel and Beckler are accused of stealing drugs prescribed for hospice patients between December 2012 and Sept. 8, 2014, according to the probable cause affidavit filed with North Central District Court.

Beckler, 39, who now lives in Fargo, and Kochel are also charged with endangering a patient by diluting medication or giving morphine instead of the more potent hydromorphine that was prescribed to manage pain.

Each woman is charged with Class B felony endangering a vulnerable adult, with Class C felony theft of property, and conspiring to steal drugs, a Class C felony.

Beckler and Kochel were reported to the North Dakota Board of Nursing in 2014 and voluntarily surrendered their licenses after admitting to the allegations that were under investigation by the board, according to the affidavit.

A woman who had worked as a hospice nurse at the same time as Beckler and Kochel told police that Beckler had made a confession to her in September 2014. Beckler allegedly confessed that her role in the thefts started after she and Kochel worked together after a patient died. They brought the unused medication back to the office and both ingested the medication. She then began using the medication herself and had been doing so for more than a year.

Further investigation was done by a supervisor and pharmacy director at Trinity Hospital into the medical and pharmacy records of 104 patients that were cared for by Beckler and Kochel. The investigation turned up multiple instances of "drug diversions" or drug thefts by one or both women, said the affidavit.

Beckler and Kochel allegedly committed the crimes because of drug addiction.

According to testimony given at a probable cause hearing for the women on Feb. 22, all of the hospice patients in question were living either in assisted living or nursing facilities or were cared for at home. Authorities had discovered some discrepancies in record keeping for other hospice nurses in addition to Kochel and Beckler and have stepped up enforcement of the rules.

Slorby argued at the hearing that Kochel had done what other hospice nurses had done. When Cresap refused to allow him to continue his line of questioning and said Slorby could obtain that information in private depositions of witnesses, Slorby responded that his client cannot afford to depose the other nurses and the state won't pay for it.

"That's the system," said Cresap, who said they were there only to find whether there was probable cause to let the charges move forward.

One witness at the hearing testified that the nurses who were charged had been found responsible for more discrepancies than the others.

Late last year, Beckler said at a bond hearing after being held in jail for several months that her parents had been paying the rent on her apartment in Fargo. Beckler said she moved back to Fargo, where she has a support system, and knows better than to not show up for court. She said her father had been a police officer so "I know better."