Judge spares pharmacy tech from jail time in massive pill theft

HADLEY GREEN/Staff file photoLisa Tillman, a former Beverly Hospital pharmacy tech accused of stealing thousands of pills, pleaded guilty to the charges on Wednesday. She is seen here during an appearance in Salem District Court in November 2018.

BEVERLY — A former pharmacy technician at Beverly Hospital pleaded guilty Wednesday to what is believed to be the largest theft of prescription drugs in Massachusetts in at least a decade. 

But Lisa Tillman, of Salem, was spared from serving jail time. 

Salem District Court Judge Robert Brennan told Tillman, 51, that "you don't benefit and society doesn't benefit" from incarcerating her for the theft of approximately 18,000 commonly-abused prescription pills, including OxyContin, Percocets and Adderall and their generic equivalents, from Beverly Hospital over a 13-month period.

The judge imposed a suspended 2 1/2 year jail term, with three years of probation. The first year will be under house arrest except for work and medical or counseling appointments. She will be required to wear a GPS bracelet.

"For the next year, your social life does not exist," the judge told Tillman, who was also ordered to undergo an evaluation for mental health and substance abuse disorders. Tillman may also be required to make restitution to the hospital, from which she was ordered to stay away except in an emergency. 

Tillman would only face the potential of serving time if she violates any of those conditions. 

"This does appear to be an anomaly," Brennan told Tillman, who was charged with obtaining drugs by fraud — drugs she continues to maintain were for personal use. Her lawyer told the judge for the first time Wednesday that the reason she took such a large quantity was to save them, in case she couldn't get access to pills in the future. 

The thefts were discovered in March 2018. An audit by the hospital later revealed the length and scope of Tillman's scheme. 

Tillman initially denied being involved in the thefts. She later told investigators who questioned her that she had flushed the pills she did not use down a toilet. 

State police who investigated the thefts failed to turn up evidence that Tillman was selling or distributing the drugs to others, something the judge also said was a factor in his decision Wednesday not to send her to jail.

'Extenuating circumstances'

Brennan also referred to "extenuating circumstances," including mental health issues, which were detailed in a written sentencing memorandum filed by her lawyer. But that memo was then placed into the non-public probation department file, making it inaccessible to a reporter. 

Tillman's attorney, Meghan Taylor, alluded to some of those circumstances during the hearing, including Tillman being a single parent and her decision to surrender her pharmacy technician license after the thefts were discovered. 

Brennan asked about the origins of Tillman's addiction, suggesting it was unusual for someone her age to develop a drug problem, and wondering whether it was the result of an accident or illness.

Taylor said it was simply a case of Tillman "self-medicating" due to the stress of being the sole parent for a son while working long hours. 

The case highlighted a lack of an effective means of tracking prescription drug "diversion" from health care facilities, which are required to report losses or thefts of controlled substances like the painkillers and stimulants taken by Tillman, to the state Department of Public Health. 

The vast majority of those cases involve much smaller amounts of medication — amounts consistent with personal use — according to copies of reports obtained by The Salem News under a public records request. 

Prosecutors were asking the judge to send Tillman to jail for 18 months of a 2 1/2 year jail term. Last June, one of Brennan's colleagues, Judge Emily Karstetter, told Tillman that she would impose a year in custody, telling the former pharmacy tech she found it "hard to wrap my head around the idea that this was for personal use." 

Prosecutor Peter Brostowin said his sentencing recommendation was in part based on the scale of the thefts. 

"The opiate crisis is systemic at this point, and I don't think there is anyone who is unaware of the street value of these medications," said Brostowin. 

How the thefts occurred

Tillman accomplished the thefts by altering pill counts and marking multiple bottles of pills as "expired," which allowed her to remove them from secure automated dispensing machines, Brostowin told the judge.

Tillman's job involved refilling the automated dispensing machines at Beverly Hospital's main campus and at satellite locations in Danvers, Lynn and Gloucester. 

Expired medication is supposed to be placed in a safe and then returned to the distributor. Instead, Tillman was seen on surveillance video putting the pills into her pockets. 

Brostowin said Tillman took drugs out of the machines more than 60 times, sometimes while she was not on duty. 

Unlike most of the employees of Beverly Hospital, her job as a pharmacy technician gave her access to all of the machines in the facilities. 

"This was not someone walking into a pharmacy with a gun," Brostowin said. "This was someone who, ultimately, betrayed the public's trust." 

And he said she merits little credit for acceptance of responsibility. "She has no other options," said the prosecutor, adding that records from the machines and surveillance video of Tillman make the case against her "very strong." 

Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said he stands by his office's recommendation for some committed jail time.

"The defendant engaged in a complex scheme to disrupt pharmaceutical protocols in order to steal thousands of pills from Beverly Hospital," Blodgett said in an emailed statement. "We believe our recommendation (which included committed jail time and lengthy probation with multiple conditions) to the court was appropriate given the scale of the theft, the violation of trust in a hospital setting, and the current public health crisis involving opiates."

Taylor, who was asking for six months of house arrest, told the judge that Tillman was a candidate for probation because she had fully complied with her pretrial conditions of release, including passing all of her drug tests and showing up for every court date. Tillman, however, was not present for a hearing last month where she had been expected to plead guilty; Taylor would not publicly disclose the reason for her absence. 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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