Lab tech pleads not guilty to infecting 32 New Hampshire patients with hepatitis C

David Kwiatkowski, a traveling hospital laboratory technician accused of stealing injectable painkillers and infecting patients with hepatitis C through the contaminated syringes he put back for patient use, pleaded not guilty to the charges in federal court on Monday.

Kwiatkowski, 33, is describe as a "serial infector" by federal prosecutors. He wasindicted last week on 14 charges which included tampering with a consumer product and illegally obtaining drugs.

The former lab tech, who was handcuffed, said only "yes" when asked in court if he understood his rights. His trial was scheduled for the first week of February, although U.S. Attorney John Kacavas said given the complexity of the case, it probably would take place later in the year.

Until May, Kwiatkowski worked as a technologist at the cardiac catheterization lab at Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire, where 32 patients were diagnosed with the same strain of hepatitis C he carries. Before that, he worked as a traveling technologist in 18 hospitals in seven states, moving from job to job despite having been fired twice over allegations of drug use and theft.

Kwiatkowski has denied using drugs and during his July arrest in connection with the hepatitis C outbreak, he suggested that a co-worker had planted a fentanyl syringe found in his car.

Thousands of patients in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania have since been tested for hepatitis C, a blood-borne viral infection that can damage the liver and lead to chronic health issues. In addition to the New Hampshire patients, a handful of patients in Kansas and one in Maryland have been found to carry the strain Kwiatkowski carries.

At Exeter, Kwiatkowski is accused of stealing the painkiller fentanyl, injecting himself and then re-filling the tainted syringes with saline to be used on patients. That's called drug diversion.

The charges refer to seven incidents between January and March, and were handed up after prosecutors were twice given more time to present the case to the grand jury. In requesting the delays, prosecutors said they were still conducting interviews and complex scientific analysis in multiple states, though the indictments only address Kwiatkowski's time in Exeter.

Exeter Hospital officials have said that while employees raised concerns about Kwiatkowski's appearance - some described him as red-eyed, shaky and sweaty - none suspected him of diverting medication.

In each case, Kwiatkowski provided plausible explanations related to either personal medical issues or family crises, the hospital said. On one occasion following a coworker's complaint, Kwiatkowski told a supervisor he had been up crying since 3:00 a.m. over his aunt's death. His parents later told investigators no relatives had died recently.

Kwiatkowski held the required certification for the job and was given good references from his previous two employers.

He was fired in 2008 from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center-Presbyterian after a co-worked accused him of sticking a fentaynl syringe down his pants, but no one called police, and neither the hospital nor the medical staffing agency that placed him in the job informed the national accreditation organization for radiological technicians. A hospital spokeswoman said officials didn't believe they had enough evidence to contact police.

Arizona Heart Hospital fired Kwiatkowski in April 2010, after he was found unresponsive in a men's locker room with syringes and needles 10 days into an assignment. Tests revealed he had cocaine and marijuana in his system. Police were called but didn't file charges.

If convicted of the charges, Kwiatkowski faces 10 years for each of the seven counts of tampering and four years for each of the seven counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.