Lab rivalries go back nearly as far as labs themselves. There’s the case of a prominent 19th-century bacteriologist who paid local authorities to deny a former collaborator access to the bodies of plague victims. There are the AIDS researchers who sabotaged one another’s work on at least five occasions. And there are numerous stories of scientists who have accused colleagues of stealing their work.
But even the highest-profile cases rarely end up in criminal court; they typically become humiliating footnotes to the discoveries they slowed.
This week, however, a judge in Montana sentenced a former chemist at the water treatment plant in Billings after she pleaded guilty in October to a felony charge of tampering with public records or information.
The information in question? Her colleagues’ water tests, which she contaminated for three months, ultimately costing the Billings water treatment plant its state certification and thoroughly perplexing her colleague, her boss and a host of experts, who could not figure out why just one chemist’s tests kept failing, according to prosecutors.
The sentence? A payment of $38,911 to the city of Billings, near Yellowstone National Park, and a three-year deferred sentence, meaning she is required to check in with a probation officer for that period.
“I deserved a reprimand, of course,” Michelle Henderson, the chemist who was sentenced on Monday, said in an interview. She said that she believed the colleague whose samples were contaminated, Katie Hendrickson, had been receiving preferential treatment from their boss. “I worked in a toxic environment that was fed by favoritism. My mind couldn’t cope.”
The rivalry took root during a time when — from the outside — everything at the Billings water treatment plant was going well. In 2014, a glowing article in a local newspaper declared that the plant was producing “the tastiest and purest water in Montana.”
In May 2015, Ms. Hendrickson, the chemist whose photo appeared with that article, discovered that she was unable to deliver on the most essential of tasks: passing a water test. Her job was to prove that the water going out to Billings residents was safe to drink. But even though other chemists’ tests showed precisely that, hers did not.
For three months, her tests — and her tests alone — failed again and again. She checked her equipment and asked her supervisor to monitor the process. Still, she experienced “numerous failed tests on a nearly daily basis beginning on May 19, 2015, and ending on Sept. 3, 2015,” an affidavit filed by the prosecution stated.
“It was kind of the scenario of everything that I touched just was contaminated and would not work,” she said at the sentencing hearing on Monday, according to The Billings Gazette. The more she did to resolve the problem, the worse it got, she said, until she saw contamination at “unbelievable levels” multiple times a day.
An external expert flew in to review the equipment, but found no problems. For those who know Ms. Hendrickson, the possibility that it was user error seemed implausible. “She was a great chemist,” said Andy Valkenburg, a former quality officer at Energy Laboratories in Billings, where she had previously been employed.
Only after the company installed surveillance cameras did the truth come to light. When Ms. Hendrickson was at lunch and in her boss’s office, Ms. Henderson handled her colleague’s samples, spiking them with a substance and discarding materials in the trash. Ms. Henderson was put on administrative leave and later resigned.
Water tests involve several steps. The first is making sure that the test is calibrated correctly. This is when Ms. Henderson manipulated the results, she said. She did this by taking a concentrated powder and putting it in the beaker used to set measurements.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more “wild” way of gaslighting someone in a lab, said Matt Queen, a professor of analytical chemistry at Montana State University Billings. It’s kind of like popping an invisible weight on a scale and then watching as everything comes out 20 pounds heavier for one person than for another. “I’m sure it just drove that poor woman nuts,” he said.
At the sentencing hearing on Monday, Ms. Henderson offered her former co-worker and boss a tearful apology, saying what she had done was “stupid,” according to The Billings Gazette.
Judge Michael Moses of Yellowstone County District Court said the consequences could have been even more grave. “You were six inches away from contaminating the water system of the community of a 100,000 people-plus,” he said, the newspaper reported. “That’s just unfathomable, and that’s a horrific breach of public trust. But thank goodness you had enough sense not to do that.”
Penelope Strong, Ms. Henderson’s lawyer, said in an interview that though her client was remorseful, the judge’s pronouncement was sensationalist given that the water from water tests never goes back to the main water supply.
Attempts to reach Ms. Hendrickson, Ms. Henderson’s former boss and the prosecutor were unsuccessful. A Billings water treatment plant employee who answered the phone this week said her team had been advised not to comment.
As to what she was thinking, Ms. Henderson said in the interview that she loved her work as a chemist but had been frustrated by the sense that she worked harder than her colleague but that their boss favored the other chemist. As a mother of three young children, she spent her breaks pumping breast milk, she said. It bothered her that her colleague seemed to taker longer breaks.
“I started muddling with her sample methods so that she would actually have to work,” Ms. Henderson said. “This just made their bond stronger and my negative emotions became cancerous.” Given a do-over, she said, she would leave before letting jealousy and resentment “seep into my soul.”