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August 27, 2014

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Ex-nurse takes back testimony in hepatitis C case

LAS VEGAS — A registered nurse who was fired from a Las Vegas outpatient medical clinic just prior to a 2007 hepatitis C outbreak returned to the witness stand Monday to tell a state court jury he misspoke when he testified that he saw a former nurse anesthetist reusing needles and syringes on multiple patients.

The witness, Rod Chaffee, spent the morning under intense cross-examination from attorneys for former physician and clinic owner Dipak Desai and Ronald Lakeman, the former nurse anesthetist who Chaffee implicated with his previous testimony.

"On Friday, you testified that you witnessed Mr. Lakeman reusing needles and syringes on multiple patients?" asked Lakeman's attorney, Frederick Santacroce.

"Correct," Chaffee replied.

"But it wasn't true, correct?" Santacroce asked.

"Correct," Chaffee said.

Lakeman is standing trial with Desai on 28 charges, including criminal neglect, reckless disregard, theft, insurance fraud and murder in the death of one infected former patient, Rodolfo Meana.

Desai and Lakeman have pleaded not guilty. They could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted.

Outside the jury's presence, Clark County District Court Judge Valerie Adair on Monday denied Santacroce's claim that Chaffee perjured himself and that she should declare a mistrial.

The judge said she didn't believe prosecutors knew Chaffee was going to change his testimony from what he told Southern Nevada Health District officials, Las Vegas police and the FBI during multiple interviews in 2008.

Adair said she was confident the jury now hearing its fifth week of testimony could judge the value of Chaffee's word following cross-examination by Santacroce and Desai's attorney, Richard Wright.

On the stand, Chaffee didn't deny saying he witnessed Lakeman reusing needles with the anesthetic propofol for multiple patients preparing for colonoscopy and endoscopy procedures.

"I didn't really realize I answered that question the way I did until I got home and ... reflected on my testimony," he said under questioning by Wright. "I witnessed Ronald Lakeman accessing open bottles of propofol with needles and syringes. That's as far as I can take it."

Chafee told the jury he had trouble with memory and personal relationships after his wife died in July 2006. He conceded he was accused of inappropriate conduct with co-workers, and had used derisive names referring to a supervisor.

Chaffee said it was true that police once arrested him and a man he had taken into his home during an investigation of allegations that the visitor had a methamphetamine lab in his bedroom.

And he acknowledged he was fired from his job in April 2007 after saying something to a co-worker about a bomb.

Santacroce noted Chaffee's firing predated the July 25, 2007, and Sept. 21, 2007, dates that investigators say seven people contracted hepatitis C through unsafe injection practices at Desai's clinic, the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

Chaffee's return to the stand delayed Monday's expected appearance of former Desai clinic business manager Tonya Rushing.

Rushing is expected to be a star witness for the prosecution, testifying that Desai emphasized speed over safety. She is due to stand trial with Desai in August in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas on federal racketeering, insurance fraud and patient neglect charges.

Desai and Rushing have pleaded not guilty. They're accused of overbilling for anesthesia and medical procedures at Desai's three clinics: Endoscopy Center of Nevada, Gastroenterology Center of Nevada and Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center in Las Vegas.

Santacroce argues Lakeman was a competent nurse-anesthetist who went many years without a complaint until he was identified as an employee at Desai's clinic and got swept up in the "hysteria" of the hepatitis outbreak.

The outbreak was believed to be the nation's largest when it became public in February 2008. The Southern Nevada Health District notified 63,000 former clinic patients to get tested for potentially fatal blood-borne diseases including hepatitis and HIV.

Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta later determined nine people had contracted incurable hepatitis C at two Desai clinics. Authorities later said hepatitis C infections of another 105 patients might have been related.

The criminal case is separate from lawsuits that yielded jury findings holding drug manufacturers and the state's largest health management organization liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to plaintiffs.

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