Investigators say Catherine Vitello lived a double life.
She was a drug dealer disguised as a nurse, they say, and now she faces felony charges that could send her to federal prison.
Vitello, director of nursing at a long-term care facility associated with Sisters of Charity Hospital, was arrested Friday and accused of illegally selling prescription drugs out of her office.
“Nurse Vitello now stands accused of not being a healer but instead of being a drug dealer,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.
Vitello, 40, of Elma is accused of selling hydrocodone pills, fentanyl patches and alprazolam to an undercover informant earlier this month.
Investigators said Vitello’s job gave her access to unused drugs stored in her office safe, and estimate she made more than $60,000 from her drug dealing over the past year.
“Ms. Vitello, as director of nursing, was responsible for the destruction of these prescription medications," said Michelle Spahn, resident agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Buffalo.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John M. Alsup said Vitello is director of nursing at St. Catherine Laboure Health Center, a long-term care facility on Main Street near Sisters.
While on the job, according to investigators, she is suspected of selling other drugs as well, including oxycontin, morphine and clonazepam.
Catholic Health Systems, in a statement, said the drugs she’s accused of selling are believed to be unused medications intended for disposal, not medications intended for the facility’s residents.
Vitello is on administrative leave pending the results of the investigation.
Hochul said the nurse is accused of selling about 145 hydrocodone pills to the undercover informant on Oct. 3 and fentanyl patches to the same informant on Oct. 16.
“Whether it’s the street corner or the corner office, you will be identified and prosecuted," he said of accused drug dealers such as Vitello.
Investigators said Vitello has been in her job for about a year and is suspected of illegally dealing prescription drugs prior to this month.
Vitello, who has worked as a nurse at other area hospitals, was arrested Friday morning at her home in Elma and appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy later in the day.
She was released from custody and ordered to appear next Wednesday. She faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Hochul said the evidence against Vitello includes video and audio surveillance of the drug buys, as well as the testimony of the undercover witness, who is not a law enforcement official.
“The sales literally took place out of Nurse Vitello’s office," he said.
DEA investigators say Vitello led a “double life” that included selling drugs she was entrusted to oversee and destroy, and that her arrest came just weeks after they received a tip about her criminal activity.
“We allege she distributed diverted prescription drugs on the streets of Buffalo with no concern for public health," Brian R. Crowell, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s New York Field Office, said in a statement.
The charges against Vitello are the result of an investigation by a DEA task force that includes Buffalo and Lackawanna police.
Dennis J. Richards, chief of detectives at Buffalo Police, said the case is significant because of the increasing number of overdoses, many of them fatal, that police are seeing among users of fentanyl and heroin.
“It’s a deadly combination," Richards said.