NH hospital worker gets 39 years in hepatitis case

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By HOLLY RAMER, Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A traveling medical technician who stole painkillers and infected dozens of patients in multiple states with hepatitis C through tainted syringes was sentenced Monday to 39 years in prison.

"I don't blame the families for hating me," David Kwiatkowski said after hearing about 20 statements from people he infected and their relatives. "I hate myself."

Kwiatkowski, 34, was a cardiac technologist in 18 hospitals in seven states before being hired at New Hampshire's Exeter Hospital in 2011. He had moved from job to job despite being fired at least four times over allegations of drug use and theft. Since his arrest last year, 46 people have been diagnosed with the same strain of hepatitis C he carries.

U.S. Attorney John Kacavas said the sentence "ensures that this serial infector no longer is in a position to do harm to innocent and vulnerable people."

Kwiatkowski admitted stealing painkillers and replacing them with saline-filled syringes tainted with his blood. He pleaded guilty in August to 16 federal drug charges.

Before he was sentenced, Kwiatkowski stood and faced his victims, saying he was very sorry and that his crimes were caused by an addiction to painkillers and alcohol. He told investigators he had been stealing drugs since at least 2003 and swapping syringes since at least 2008.

"There's no excuse for what I've done," he said. "I know the pain and suffering I have caused."

Prosecutors asked for a 40-year sentence. Judge Joseph Laplante said he cut the last year as a reminder that some people have the capacity for mercy and compassion.

"It's important for you to recognize and remember as you spend the next 39 years in prison to focus on the one year you didn't get and try to develop that capacity in yourself," Laplante said.

The victims spoke angrily and tearfully of the pain that Kwiatkowski had inflicted by giving them hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that can cause liver disease and chronic health problems. Authorities say the disease played a role in one woman's death.

"You may only be facing drug charges, but make no mistake, you are a serial killer," said Kathleen Murray of Elmira, N.Y., whose mother was infected in Baltimore and was too ill to travel to New Hampshire for the sentencing.

Linda Ficken, 71, said she is haunted by the memory of Kwiatkowski standing at her hospital bedside in Kansas for more than an hour applying pressure to the catheter's entry site in her leg to control bleeding.

"On one hand, you were saving my life, and on the other hand, your acts are a death sentence for me," Ficken, of Andover, Kan., told him. "Do I thank you for what you did to help me? Do I despise you for what your actions did and will continue to do for the rest of my life? Or do I simply just feel sorry for you being the pathetic individual you are?"

Prosecutors said Kwiatkowski deserved 40 years for creating a "national public health crisis," putting a significant number of people at risk and caused substantial physical and emotional harm to a large number of victims.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Farley called Kwiatkowski's actions "exceedingly callous" and "unbelievably cruel" and noted that Kwiatkowski could've stolen painkillers without exposing his patients to hepatitis C.

Defense lawyers argued that a 30-year sentence would better balance the seriousness of the crimes against Kwiatkowski's mental and emotional problems and his addiction to drugs and alcohol, which they said clouded his judgment.

"David Kwiatkowski is not a monster," said attorney Bjorn Lange. "He didn't set out to infect himself or anyone else with the hepatitis C virus."

In all, 32 patients were infected in New Hampshire, seven in Maryland, six in Kansas and one in Pennsylvania. Though prosecutors have not included the Pennsylvania case in their count, a spokeswoman for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has repeatedly said the hospital had one confirmed case. Kwiatkowski also worked in Michigan, New York, Arizona and Georgia.

Two of the 16 charges stem from the case of Eleanor Murphy, a Kansas woman who has since died. Authorities say hepatitis C played a contributing role.

"You ultimately gave my mother a death sentence," Murphy's son, Ronnie, told Kwiatkowski.

Murphy said he would have preferred a life sentence for Kwiatkowski and didn't understand how he had been able to continue working after his repeated firings.

"His path and my mother's path never should have crossed," he said.

The judge noted that while Kwiatkowski's lack of a criminal record kept his sentence from going even higher, he said that was only because Kwiatkowski's employers handled his behavior as personnel matters instead of crimes. And Kacavas said his office has begun working with other agencies to draft policy recommendations to prevent future incidents.

"While the conclusion of this prosecution closes the criminal aspect of this case, it has cast a harsh light on the dirty little secret of drug diversion in the medical setting and it has heightened public awareness for the need for tighter reform and regulation in the hiring and management of medical health care workers," he said.

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Associated Press writer Rik Stevens contributed to this report.

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