Ryan Epperson, the county jailer who posed as a surgeon to steal narcotics from Chattanooga's three major hospitals, was sent Wednesday to Drug Court after pleading guilty to several charges.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole accepted a plea agreement in which Epperson's numerous drug, vandalism, burglary, impersonation and trespassing charges were reduced to a six-year sentence.
However, the judge said Epperson will enter Drug Court, an alternative sentencing program founded in 2005 that allows addicts to recover outside of prison. If Epperson is kicked out of that program, he will serve his sentence.
According to Drug Court records, Epperson is the third person to enter the program this week, rounding out the total number of participants to 113.
Bill Speek, his attorney, was pleased with Wednesday's outcome.
"We could take people like Ryan Epperson and stack them up like firewood in the prison," Speek said. "But that wouldn't do anything for them or society. He's given an opportunity now to deal with his addiction."
Epperson, 27, was caught May 27, 2015, in Erlanger hospital wandering around the surgical suite in scrubs. He was carrying six vials of painkillers in his pocket and told arresting officers he was "feeding an addiction."
After his arrest, Epperson posted bail and managed to stay clean for a period of time. But after a doctor at Erlanger recognized Epperson from a hospital security picture, he was arrested again on Aug. 19.
In September, after his second appearance in General Sessions Court, most of Epperson's drug, vandalism, trespassing and impersonation charges were sent to the grand jury. Before Wednesday's hearing, he was held at the Silverdale Detention Center on a $700,000-plus bond, Speek said.
In Criminal Court, prosecutor Andrew Coyle said Epperson stole the drugs to indulge a personal addiction, not for resale, which is one of the many charges he faced.
"There were no buys," Coyle told the judge. "No baggies. And that was the basis for reducing his charges."
Speek said his client worked with investigators, admitted his crimes and had no prior record — just a horrendous addiction.
In 2011, newspaper archives show, Epperson was suspended after an internal investigation found he helped then-Deputy Chief of Corrections Rob Parsons complete college coursework to maintain his state certification in law enforcement.
In March 2014, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond found Epperson gave his supervisor a medical excuse signed by a doctor he never visited. According to archives, Epperson failed to tell his supervisors he was taking a prescription drug, was vague with investigators during the process and advised his spouse not to cooperate.
He ran in the May 2014 Republican primary for Hamilton County register of deeds but lost by a substantial margin to the longtime incumbent.
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