SPOKANE, Wash. — A man was rushed into the emergency room in excruciating pain. He had a prescription for morphine, but the dose he was administered didn’t do anything. Only after the vial was tested did it come out that the pain medication was replaced with saline.

That discovery is what led investigators to find out that for around a year, Esther Rae Tuller was using her position as a licensed nurse to steal morphine in order to feed her opioid addiction.

Tuller became a registered nurse in 2012. Court documents state at the time, she was working for a Colorado nursing home. At the nursing home, she was diverting drugs for her own use. She soon quit, moving to Washington.

From October 2012 to May 2020, Tuller had access to opioid narcotics and other controlled substances at a Washington hospital. Court documents state that between August 2019 and April 2020, she used that access to obtain morphine.

Tuller used a syringe to remove at least 17 vials of morphine, each containing 4 milliliters of the opioid derivative commonly prescribed to relieve pain. The court document goes on to say she tried to cover her tracks, filling the vials with saline and attempting to glue caps back on to make them appear intact.

In doing this, Chief Judge Bastian noted that she did not simply steal medications, she put patients at risk.

Defendant’s conduct was unquestionably and exceptionally egregious. She used her position of trust and violated her professional responsibility, placing patients who were entrusted to her care in extreme danger. She not only abused opioids while responsible for caring for patients, but attempted to conceal her actions, placing patients in further danger and ensuring they would receive useless saline when they needed pain relief medication. Defendant’s action in replacing the medication vials with saline and then gluing the caps back on was a calculated and premeditated attempt to hide her actions at the expense of the patients that she promised to care for and protect.

Sentencing order filed in the case agaisnt Esther Rae Tuller

Still, the judge noted that her conduct was caused by opioid dependence that arose of a number of serious medical conditions, which she continues to deal with. While it does not excuse her behavior, the judge notes that it underscores that Tuller, like many, is both a perpetrator and a victim of the opioid crisis.

“While Ms. Tuller’s addiction to opioids is both tragic and far too common, her decision to take advantage of her access to medical-grade morphine was an egregious breach of trust,” said United States Attorney Waldref. “It is deeply troubling that she compounded her misconduct by secretly replacing that morphine with saline in vials that she knew would be distributed to patients, recklessly endangering patients who rely on the integrity of our health care system every day.”

As a result of her actions, Tuller was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release. The judge said that given Tuller is unlikely to ever again obtain employment that gives her access to opioids, it is unlikely this conduct will happen again.