During a nine-month period, a Montana State Crime Lab technician is suspected of stealing drugs collected as evidence by law enforcement agencies from across the state.
Steve Brester is suspected of stealing prescription medications from lab evidence between September 2014 to June 2015. He was fired from the lab in June.
The thefts forced prosecutors from around the state to drop drug charges in multiple cases, including two drug charges against Nicholas Ellis Allison, a Billings man who punched a police officer while being arrested.
During Allison’s trial in Billings this week, Montana State Crime Lab Administrator Phil Kinsey testified about the ongoing investigation into the crime lab being conducted by the state’s Division of Criminal Investigators.
Allison was arrested last year at a Billings casino after customers reported he was behaving suspiciously. While he was being frisked, Allison was found to have a gun. He hit the officer in the head and tried to run away.
Allison was also found to be carrying drugs suspected to be oxycodone. Those drugs were later sent for identification to the Montana State Crime Lab. Allison’s drug evidence was one of as many as 6,000 various pieces of evidence handled by Brester during the total of nine months he spent at the lab.
The state Attorney General’s office said Thursday at least 50 drug cases were affected across the state. Investigators say Brester — a former Missoula Police lieutenant — tampered only with drug cases.
In Allison’s case, Yellowstone County Chief Deputy Attorney Juli Pierce dismissed two drug possession counts because of the evidence tampering.
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Pierce attempted to prevent testimony about the tainted drug evidence and state investigation from being entered during trial. That motion was denied by Yellowstone County Judge Gregory Todd.
The Yellowstone County Attorney’s office became aware of the tampering in July 2015 after the Montana State Crime Lab conducted a quality control audit.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and Pierce were both unavailable for comment Thursday. However, Deputy Chief of Criminal Operations Ed Zink said the crime lab was forced to contact prosecutors from across the state about the tampering.
“We moved to dismiss counts that were affected,” Zink said. “If all the evidence in a case was affected, we dismissed the entire case. If one count in a case was affected and the rest of the evidence was intact, then we proceeded with the balance of the case.”
Zink couldn’t give an exact figure of the number of cases affected in Yellowstone County.
In court Wednesday, Allison’s defense attorney Daniel O.C. Ball argued the whole case was tainted by the tampering. Allison was convicted of several felonies, including assaulting a police officer.
During the trial, Todd expressed his concern about the evidence tampering at the crime lab.
He said if a large portion of the cases Brester handled were tampered with, the justice system would be looking at a massive problem, something like the issues the state crime lab faced in the past regarding the scientific accuracy of hair analysis. One of those cases led a man to be wrongly incarcerated for the rape of a 9-year-old girl.