Around 8 a.m. Monday, a nurse at Parkridge Medical Center walked into a radiology lab and noticed that its medicine-dispensing machine had been forced open.
A number of powerful painkillers were missing: 10 syringes of morphine, six vials of Demerol and five doses of fentanyl.
As hospital officials and a Chattanooga Police Department detective scanned the previous night's security camera footage they spotted their suspect: a tall white man with his back to the camera, walking toward the lab.
Chattanooga police now say that man was 26-year-old Ryan Epperson, a corrections officer with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office since 2009 who also ran unsuccessfully for county office last year.
Posing as a surgeon, police say, Epperson managed to bypass security measures at all three of Chattanooga's major downtown hospitals to steal narcotics.
"Epperson admitted that he had an addiction problem and was trying to feed that addiction," his arrest report states. Large quantities of narcotics were found in Epperson's Ford Fusion and at his home, police say.
Police say it is unclear how long Epperson may have been stealing drugs from hospitals, but one affidavit describes the investigation as "ongoing" after medication dispensaries had been "repeatedly broken into" at Erlanger, Parkridge Medical Center and CHI Memorial.
"With extensive damage to these very expensive machines and large quantities of missing narcotics, it was imperative to locate these suspect [sic] caught on several security cameras," Detective Terry Topping wrote in an affidavit filed Thursday.
Epperson was arrested Wednesday on multiple drug, vandalism, trespassing and impersonation charges after Erlanger security guard Kimberly Demp noticed him walking through a surgery suite without a name badge -- a requirement for all physicians and hospital personnel, Erlanger officials say.
Epperson was wearing scrubs, but when he couldn't produce his credentials, Demp and another security guard escorted him back to his car. They stopped in a stairwell where Epperson had left his jacket and keys. Also in the stairwell were "tools used to burglarize the machines and additional loaded syringes of fentanyl and Demerol," the affidavit states.
Epperson initially asked police "why a Hamilton County Sheriff deputy was being detained." But he soon admitted that he had a painkiller addiction and pulled six vials of Demerol from his pocket. He then "asked if he could turn in all the drugs he has taken from Erlanger Hospital, Parkridge Hospital, and Memorial Hospital."
Police say he confessed to breaking into restricted areas at Erlanger to steal drugs, and that he had more drugs at his home. There detectives discovered a "large quantity of narcotics" that included Demerol, fentanyl and morphine.
Local hospital officials said Thursday they were handling their own internal investigations into the thefts.
"We have taken immediate steps to evaluate the security of our drug dispensing processes and procedures, as well as access to our restricted areas," said Patty Montgomery, director of marketing for Parkridge Health System.
Erlanger officials said their comments are limited by "an ongoing criminal and internal investigation," but spokeswoman Pat Charles said that "thanks to a variety of safeguards and surveillance measures, we are grateful that Erlanger's employees were responsible for the apprehension of this suspect."
Memorial spokeswoman Lisa McCluskey said none of the hospital's large medicine dispensary machines have been broken into recently, but she said drugs were stolen twice in recent months from hospital "crash carts," which typically hold emergency medications.
She said the hospital is working with the police department to see whether those drugs are in Epperson's possession.
"We are watching this investigation closely," she said.
Epperson was charged with six counts of possessing drugs for resale, two counts of vandalism, two counts of theft and one count each of criminal trespassing and impersonating a licensed professional.
As of Thursday afternoon, Epperson still in custody on a $93,000 bond. Hamilton County sheriff's officials say they have ordered an internal affairs investigation and that 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," Sheriff Jim Hammond said in a statement. "If this employee is found guilty of any of his charges he will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Epperson had been investigated before while working at the sheriff's office.
In 2011, he was suspended after an internal investigation found he inappropriately helped then-Deputy Chief of Corrections Rob Parsons complete college coursework to maintain his state certification in law enforcement.
In March 2014, Hammond found that Epperson in August 2013 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.
That internal investigation included allegations that Epperson had altered a doctor's note and intentionally delayed filing booking paperwork during his regular duties, but those allegations were dismissed.
Contact staff writer Kate Belz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.