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Lawsuit filed against ex-officer accused of stealing prescription drugs

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4 2012 1:30 p.m. MST

VERNAL — Two Vernal residents who claim a former police officer repeatedly stole their prescription painkillers have filed a $2 million lawsuit against the man.

Ben Marland Murray is identified as the primary defendant in the civil rights lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court. The suit also lists the state of Utah and Vernal city as defendants.

Murray, a former Vernal police detective, visited the home of Russell Wayne Smithey and Candy Jean Holmes on at least 30 occasions in 2011 to conduct "pill checks," according to the couple's lawsuit. Those visits coincided with either Smithey or Holmes refilling a prescription for pain medication, the suit alleges.

"(Murray) knew when the medicine was available for pickup and how much they were supposed to be taking for their specific conditions," the lawsuit states.

The detective obtained this private medical information by accessing the Utah Prescription Drug Database from his home and work computers, Smithey and Holmes allege.

The database was first created in 1995 and then expanded two years ago. It collects and tracks all information on prescription drugs dispensed by pharmacies in Utah. Its use is restricted to doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement officers for the purpose of identifying patients or doctors who might be overusing, over-prescribing or abusing prescription drugs.

Police can access the database by providing an active case number, and they are supposed to have probable cause before accessing an individual's prescription information.

Murray ignored those requirements, according to the federal lawsuit.

"Officer Murray required that the plaintiffs produce all of the prescription pain medication in their home, knowing exactly what they had, how much they had and when they got it via the state database," the suit alleges. "While counting the pills, he distracted the plaintiffs with interrogation and surreptitiously stole part of their medication by slipping it into his pockets."

Smithey and Holmes, who both have extensive criminal histories, set up a hidden video camera in their home and recorded one of Murray's visits in late 2011. They gave the tape to one of their attorneys, who handed it over to the Utah Attorney General's Office. 

Murray was on duty Aug. 11 when he was arrested by investigators with the attorney general's office. He was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail that day for investigation of burglary but has not been charged with a crime.

In April, when Smithey and Holmes first went public with their intent to file a lawsuit, the Utah Attorney General's Office had no comment on why Murray had not been charged. Murray's defense attorney, Loni DeLand, said at the time that he had been working with state prosecutors since his client's arrest to resolve the case.

"They were going to charge him. They're still going to charge him, and my client's going to plead guilty as charged," DeLand said in April. "It's been that way since day one."

The delay in charging Murray stemmed from allegations by other individuals after his arrest that the former officer also burglarized their homes for prescription drugs, DeLand said.

"We've had to stop negotiations so (the state) can investigate those claims before moving forward on our plea bargain," he said. "They're baseless claims, and each time that happens, we have to delay." 

The Utah Attorney General's Office declined to comment on the case when contacted Tuesday by the Deseret News. DeLand was not available for comment.

A 12-year veteran of the Vernal Police Department, Murray resigned the day after his arrest.

A jail report indicates he took prescription medication from a home on Aug. 1 and Aug. 11. "Post-Miranda, (Murray) admitted taking the prescription medication. The dwelling was occupied at the time of both thefts,” the report states.

The state Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, which operates and maintains the database, declined to comment on the allegations made by Smithey and Holmes. The agency did, however, release a statement in April.

"It is the Utah Legislature that allows law enforcement to access the Controlled Substance Database," the statement said. "If legislators want to amend the statute to limit access to medical practitioners, then that would be their call to make."

The division also noted that the "terms of use" for the database makes it clear that "any attempt to obtain information from the database by fraud, deceit or subterfuge" or "unauthorized use of this information" is a third-degree felony.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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