The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
PLAINS TWP. — Four Department of Veterans Affairs employees have been hit with drug charges following what police say was a “large-scale investigation” into drug possession and dealing at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Michael Patrick Appel, 37, of 78 Zerby Ave., Edwardsville; Brian Harris, 47, of 1202 Four Seasons Court, Hazle Twp.; Robert Taffaro, 41, of 164 Hillside St., Trucksville; and David James Koechel Jr., 56, of 205 Hill St., Noxen, were charged after police say they found them in possession of drugs during searches at the hospital last month.
According to the complaints, Veterans Affairs police began investigating in October after workers began finding discarded drugs and paraphernalia in an employee parking lot. Among the refuse were heroin bags, insulin needles, Suboxone strip packets and more than eight grams of cocaine, the charges say.
Confidential informants told police that Appel and Harris were partners in a drug ring, and that Harris had been delivering marijuana to Taffaro and Koechel at the VA campus. An informant also told investigators that Appel had been dealing Adderall, Xanax and marijuana, and that he had a marijuana growing operation in his basement, police said.
A hospital employee told investigators that he had bought amphetamines from Appel on several occasions, including at the hospital’s maintenance shop, and that he had overdosed on the drugs in September, the charges say.
During a search of Appel’s locker, police found a bottle of urine that could be used to pass a drug test, as well as about two grams of marijuana, according to the complaint. Police also found Appel in possession of the anti-psychotic drug quetiapine and money orders totaling $1,200, the complaint says.
Police seized Appel’s cellphone, and then noticed he was secretly swiping the face of a smart watch he was wearing at a “frantic tempo,” the complaint says. Investigators then discovered all the text messages, emails and communications on the cellphone that was paired to the watch had been deleted, the charges say.
During a search of Harris’ property, police found a package of “cannabis oil” for vaping and a box of UPass synthetic urine, according to the charges. Harris was also in possession of vape pipes, rolling papers and an airsoft pistol, police said.
When questioned, Harris admitted delivering marijuana and cannabis oil that he had gotten from his roommate, according to police.
Police say Taffaro and Koechel each admitted to buying marijuana from Harris, and that they each had a small amount of the drug in their vehicles during a search.
Veterans Affairs police charged Appel with drug trafficking, tampering with evidence and furnishing drug-free urine, while Harris was charged with drug possession, possession of marijuana, possessing drug paraphernalia and furnishing drug-free urine.
Koechel and Taffaro were each charged with possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
Court records show the men were being charged by summons on Thursday and that all four defendants were awaiting preliminary hearings.
Their employment status with the hospital was not known Tuesday.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center … takes all accusations of improprieties seriously,” spokesman William Klaips said in a statement. “While it would be inappropriate to comment on any ongoing investigations or personnel matters, it is the practice of the medical center to investigate all allegations and appropriately address any findings or concerns.”
©2018 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)