Former hospice nurses plead guilty

The state is recommending five years in prison for April Beckler and three years in prison for Kim Kochel on charges that they stole drugs from hospice patients.

Both Beckler, 40, and Kochel, 47, both former Trinity Hospice nurses, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to charges that they stole drugs from patients between 2012 and 2014.

Both Beckler and Kochel pleaded guilty to Class B felony endangering a vulnerable adult and Class C felony criminal conspiracy. The state will drop Class C felony theft of property charges against both women.

Beckler and Kochel had been scheduled to go to trial together on May 6. Beckler’s lawyer, Eric Baumann, scheduled a change of plea hearing for his client, which Kochel’s lawyer, Tom Slorby, said interfered with his defense strategy for Kochel.

The women are alleged to have stolen drugs prescribed for hospice patients or endangering them by diluting medication or giving morphine instead of the more potent hydromorphine to manage pain. According to court documents Beckler told a former colleague that she and Kochel brought unused drugs back to their office and used them together after a patient died and then she kept stealing and using the drugs.

Slorby said the state could not have used Beckler’s statement implicating Kochel at trial because the two were going to be tried together. He doesn’t believe Kochel would have been convicted. But the circumstances changed when Beckler agreed to change her plea prior to the trial. Slorby then scheduled a conditional change of plea for Kochel. Slorby still plans to ask an appeals court to rule on whether the statute of limitations bars the state from prosecuting Kochel on the charges and the plea would not stand if the appeals court ruled in her favor.

The state did not file charges until Aug. 31, 2017, nearly three years after an initial report was made about the drug diversion. The Drug Enforcement Agency investigated in September 2014. An investigation was conducted by the State Board of Nursing and both women eventually surrendered their nursing licenses. The case didn’t draw attention again until March 2016, when a diversion investigator with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration noticed that a report from Sept. 5, 2014 had not been resolved and contacted the Minot police department in January 2017. Police started investigating, but no charges were filed until eight months after that.

Both women completed drug addiction treatment since then and Slorby said Kochel has since regained her license to practice nursing.

For Beckler, the prosecution will recommend 10 years in prison on the B felony charge, with a requirement that she serve five years in prison, and a five year flat sentence on the C felony charge that would be concurrent with the B felony. Beckler would be on supervised probation for three years, would have to pay court costs and restitution, and undergo a chemical dependency evaluation.

Beckler’s lawyer, Eric Baumann, said he will be arguing for a lighter sentence of time served when sentencing is held on July 26 before Judge Todd Cresap.

Cresap also ordered a pre-sentence investigation including a psychological evaluation and a chemical dependency evaluation for Beckler. Beckler told the judge that she has been under the care of a psychiatrist and would be in a locked treatment facility.

For Kochel, the state will recommend a 10 year sentence on the B felony charge, with a requirement that she serve three years, and a flat three year sentence on the Class C felony conspiracy charge, concurrent with the sentence on the B felony charge. Kochel would also be on supervised probation for three years and would be required to pay restitution and court costs.

Prosecutor Marie Miller did not elaborate Wednesday on why she is recommending a lesser sentence for Kochel.

The pleas were made on open plea basis, meaning that Cresap can sentence both women to anything he chooses up to the maximum sentence allowed. The maximum sentence for a B felony is 10 years and five years for a C felony.

Judge Cresap ordered Beckler taken into custody immediately at Wednesday’s hearing. He ordered Kochel to report to jail by 9 a.m. today, Thursday. Both defense attorneys had asked for their clients to remain free on bond prior to the sentencing hearing, but Cresap said he has never allowed a defendant to remain free on bond on a B felony once they have pleaded guilty.

Sentencing is set for July 26 for both women. Three hours have been set aside for the hearing to enable victims and family members of victims to give testimony at the hearing prior to the sentencing.