Former FBI agent Matthew Lowry arrives for sentencing at US District Court on July 9, 2015 in Washington, DC
Washington (AFP) - Matthew Lowry once had a promising career in the FBI. But his drug addiction got the better of him, and on Thursday, he was sentenced to three years in prison for stealing heroin he had collected as evidence.
Lowry, 33, was relieved of his duties after his tampering with evidence forced US prosecutors to abandon their cases against more than two dozen drug traffickers.
His fall from grace began with an addiction to prescription painkillers to treat his ulcerative colitis -- a painful inflammation of the large intestine.
His dependency on medication to relieve his chronic pain morphed into a heroin addiction during his work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, defense attorney Robert Bonsib told AFP.
"The irony of the situation is that he's basically taking heroin to maintain his physical condition to continue to investigate major drug dealers," the attorney said.
"He was using heroin not to get high, but to be able to work hard."
It was a precipitous downward spiral for a young agent from whom many had anticipated great things.
At his sentencing, in a statement interspersed with tears and long silences, Lowry apologized to his former FBI colleagues and the US government, stating that he accepted "full responsibility" for his actions while asking Federal Judge Thomas Hogan for "leniency."
Lowry, the father of an 18-month-old toddler, had dreamed all his life of following in his police officer father's footsteps into a career in law enforcement.
He graduated with honors from the FBI training academy near Washington, and just three years later was assigned to an elite anti-drug trafficking unit.
But even as he was receiving accolades from his superiors, Lowry secretly found ways over many months to steal small amounts of the heroin seized as evidence in various drug busts, to which he had access.
"We have a federal agent who for a long period of time, 14 months, committed a crime repeatedly," prosecutor Kevin Brenner said at the hearing.
Lowry's wrongdoings were finally uncovered during a drug-induced high in late September, in a section of Washington infamous as a haven for trafficking.
The counternarcotics agent, according to court documents, was found to be "incoherent."
His car, which had run out of gas, had traces of heroin seized in the drug arrests in which he had participated -- along with some emptied evidence bags.
Authorities also found weapons and cell phones confiscated during the same sting operations.
Lowry pleaded guilty in late March to 64 counts, including obstruction of justice, falsification of records and possession of heroin.
His father, William Lowry, pleaded for forgiveness for not having noticed his son's decline, while choking back tears.
"He protected the whole community but he didn't protect himself, he didn't save himself," he said at the sentencing.
Rendering one of his "most difficult sentencings in more than 32 years" Hogan compared addiction to "a serious brain disease" and said he considered it a mitigating factor.
Clearly relieved at having received three years rather than the seven to nine recommended by the government, Lowry said as he left the court that he thought "the judge understood how powerfully addiction can affect one person's behavior."
- Drug stings lost -
Lowry's theft of drug evidence led to the unraveling of several cases, and forced authorities to free about 30 drug dealers because the evidence used in their arrests had been tampered with.
Charges were notably dropped for 15 dealers from a notorious trafficking ring that operated between California and Washington, and for a dozen New York drug traffickers who ran a flourishing crack and heroin smuggling operation.
Officials also prematurely shut down several other probes.
Another four convicted drug traffickers with sentences of up to five years in prison asked for their sentences to be vacated.
Lowry's lawyer said his client went through rehab but was still attending "Narcotics Anonymous" programs.
"This is a young man who from the time he was a child wanted to be a police officer," the attorney said.
"When he was four, five, six, he was dressing as a police officer," Bonsib said.
"That aspiration has been crushed by his own conduct."
Nevertheless, some good may come from Lowry's effort to make amends -- by serving as a warning to others in law enforcement not to repeat his mistakes, the attorney added.
"He's willing to tell his story," Bonsib said.
"He's devastated by the consequences of his conduct... There's a story to be told, which could be helpful for others."
Lowry will serve out his sentence at a prison in Maryland.