Authorities say a Hamilton County Sheriff's Office correction officer dressed in scrubs and posed as a surgeon to enter secure areas at Chattanooga's three major hospitals to steal narcotics multiple times this week.
Ryan Epperson, 26, was arrested Wednesday on multiple drug, vandalism, trespassing and impersonation charges.
Epperson was caught in Erlanger Hospital on Wednesday, wandering around the surgical suite in scrubs, carrying six vials of the painkiller Demerol in his pocket. Chattanooga police also found a large bag of narcotics in his vehicle trunk and residence, according to his affidavit.
Security footage also shows a man who police believe was Epperson breaking into to a lab at Parkridge Medical Center on Sunday, according to the affidavit.
Parkridge employees noticed the missing narcotics on Monday and alerted police, who discovered that a medication dispenser in the lab had been broken into.
Investigators were unable to find any prints at the crime scene, but security footage showed a tall white male walking toward the room around the time of the break in.
Police were unable to identify the man from the video, but when Epperson was discovered at Erlanger, he matched the man in the video, according to police.
"Epperson admitted that he had an addiction problem and was trying to feed that addiction," the affidavit states.
Epperson later "asked if he could turn in all the drugs he has taken from Erlanger Hospital, Parkridge Hospital, and Memorial Hospital."
He then told detectives he had more drugs at his home. There detectives discovered a "large quantity of narcotics" that included the painkillers Demerol, fentanyl and morphine.
Local hospital officials said Thursday they were handling their own internal investigations into the thefts.
"After discovering damage to our medication dispensing system, we immediately notified law enforcement officials and contacted the area hospitals to make them aware of the situation," said Patty Montgomery, director of marketing for Parkridge Health System. "We have taken immediate steps to evaluate the security of our drug dispensing processes and procedures, as well as access to our restricted areas."
Erlanger officials said they are limited in what they can say because of "an ongoing criminal and internal investigation," but spokeswoman Pat Charles said that Epperson was apprehended "thanks to a variety of safeguards and surveillance measures, we are grateful that Erlanger's employees were responsible for the apprehension of this suspect."
Charles said all staff, physicians, volunteers and medical students must wear ID badges at all times on campus.
Memorial officials had not responded to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.
Hamilton County Sheriff's officials said Epperson was immediately suspended following the arrest, and that there will be an internal affairs investigation in the incident.
Epperson will be suspended with pay pending his June 2 court appearance before General Sessions Judge Christine Sell.
"That is our agency's policy; to give the employee his day in court first where they can be found innocent or guilty." "If this employee is found guilty of any of his charges he will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Hammond said in a statement.
Chief Deputy Allen Branum said that the department does not "tolerate this kind of behavior by any of our employees who have betrayed the public's trust in them."
Epperson has been charged with six counts of drugs for resale, two counts of vandalism, two counts of theft and one count of criminal trespassing. He is also charged with impersonation of a licensed professional.
In 2011, Epperson was suspended from the sheriff's department when an internal affairs investigation found that he inappropriately helped then- deputy chief of corrections Rob Parsons complete college coursework that allowed Parsons to maintain his state certification in law enforcement.
In another internal investigation completed in March 2014, Sheriff Jim Hammond sustained allegations that in August 2013 Epperson gave his supervisor a medical excuse from work signed by a doctor he never saw, failed to tell his supervisors he was taking a prescription drug, was vague and misleading with investigators and failed to cooperate with investigators by telling his spouse not to speak with them, according to Times Free Press archives.
The original investigation included two other allegations that Epperson had altered a doctor's note and intentionally delayed filing booking paperwork during his regular duties, but those allegations were ultimately dismissed.
Last year, Epperson ran for Hamilton County's register of deeds post against 20-year-incumbent Pam Hurst in the May primary.
This story was updated at 2:24 p.m. with a response from hospitals and the sheriff's office.