SAN FRANCISCO — A former federal Drug Enforcement Administration chemist was indicted Tuesday on federal charges that she stole some of the cocaine she was supposed to test as evidence in criminal prosecutions.
The indictment of Esther J. Allen, 56, could affect an undetermined number of federal drug trafficking cases in four Western states, since it raises the possibility that she tampered with evidence crucial to the prosecution of the cases.
Lawyers said Tuesday that defense attorneys in the region will doubtless examine their cases to determine whether Allen was the chemical analyst who tested cocaine used as evidence against their clients.
At least one acquittal already has come as a result of the investigation into Allen, lawyers involved in the failed San Francisco cocaine prosecution said.
Several lawyers said damage to prosecutions may be limited because drugs tested by Allen can be retested by other DEA chemists. Additionally, she is not accused of removing the entire amount of cocaine in any one case--so some evidence remains.
In Tuesday's indictment, a federal grand jury accused Allen of tampering with cocaine booked into evidence in DEA cases between October, 1983, and March of this year. In that period she performed analyses in scores of cocaine cases.
In all, she is charged with six counts of embezzlement, six counts of possession with intent to distribute narcotics, and one count of attempting to distribute narcotics through the U.S. mail.
Allen is alleged to have taken slightly more than 7 1/2 pounds in various increments ranging from four ounces to 14 ounces, the indictment said. Apparently, Allen replaced the cocaine she took with another substance to bring back the sample to its original weight.
The 15-year DEA employee worked at the Western Regional Laboratory in San Francisco where she performed chemical analyses of narcotics obtained as evidence and testified in court on her findings. She resigned in April after authorities began investigating her conduct.
The DEA laboratory is responsible for testing illicit drugs seized in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
"Most of the stuff we got out of the Western Regional Office had her name on (it)," said Deputy Federal Public Defender Geoff Hansen in San Francisco.
Hansen won an acquittal in June of a woman charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine after prosecutors did not put into evidence the trace amount of cocaine that had been seized in the case and analyzed by Allen.
Allen was effectively precluded from testifying in the case because defense lawyer Hansen would have discredited her by asking her about the investigation, attorneys for both sides said.
"Undoubtedly now everybody will be double checking," said Jerrold M. Ladar, a San Francisco lawyer who specializes in drug cases.
Moreover, prosecutors must inform lawyers for people charged or already convicted of drug offenses in which Allen was the analyst that she worked on the case.
Prosecutors who were interviewed were skeptical, however, that cases would be thrown out as a result.
"I think they (defense lawyers) will make it a big deal. I'm not sure how that will play out in the courtroom when the judges hear all of the facts," said Assistant U.S. Atty. James Lassart, head of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force in San Francisco.
If convicted, Allen, a Corte Madera, Calif. resident, would face a maximum of 10 years imprisonment for the embezzlement charges, 15 years for possession with intent to distribute and four years for illegal use of the mails. She could also face a fine in all charges, the DEA said.
The case is being prosecuted by Jan Nielsen Little, a trial attorney with the Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice in Washington.