By SASHA PEZENIK, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — The Wisconsin pharmacist accused of intentionally attempting to destroy nearly 500 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine formally pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday.
Prosecutors charged Steven Brandenburg, 46, with two counts of attempting to tamper with consumer products. The charges carry a maximum combined sentence of 20 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.
Brandenburg, an “admitted conspiracy theorist,” prosecutors say, had already admitted to removing vials of Moderna vaccine from his pharmacy’s refrigerator on two occasions with the intent to render them inert, because he believed the vaccine to be unsafe, and that it could change a person’s DNA.
There is no evidence to suggest, nor science to support, that the COVID-19 vaccine alters DNA.
Prosecutors filed a request to remand Brandenburg ahead of his Tuesday hearing to jail him until sentencing, arguing the fringe views he allegedly holds — not just about the coronavirus vaccine — rendered him a potential danger to the public.
In federal court filings obtained by ABC News, prosecutors allege Brandenburg believed in extremist theories, among which that the Sept. 11 attacks were “fake” and that the Earth is flat. Prosecutors also cited interviews with one of Brandenburg’s coworkers, who said that Brandenburg had brought a gun to work.
Brandenburg “stated it was a .45 and kept it in case the military came to take him away,” prosecutors cited from their interview with his coworker.
Prosecutors also allege that besides attempting to tamper with the COVID vaccine, that “on multiple occasions” Brandenburg had allegedly substituted saline solution for flu vaccine that he was required to receive as part of his employment, and “was able to convince” co-workers to secretly switch their shot out for saline as well, the request to remand said.
He “had no compunctions about violating rules intended to protect the public health,” and showed “a demonstrated willingness and ability to (i) flout the rules; (ii) conscript others into his schemes; and, (iii) inspire dangerous public sentiment,” prosecutors wrote in their request to remand.
“Mr. Brandenburg’s actions have undermined the ongoing efforts by public health authorities to engender faith and confidence in these vaccines,” they said in court.
More, prosecutors questioned whether Brandenburg had in fact turned in all of his firearms to authorities — citing divorce filings from his now-ex wife, obtained and previously reported by ABC News, that Brandenburg had been storing bulk food and guns at a rental unit besides the one he had moved to after their separation, and therefore perhaps not a location where firearms had already been recovered.
Brandenburg’s attorney, Jason Baltz, said he had turned in all his firearms on the day he had bonded out of jail.
Judge Brett Ludwig presiding, said that if there is indeed such a storage unit, that “those should be affirmatively reviewed and any firearms in those facilities need to be turned into the authorities.”
Appearing via Zoom Tuesday, Brandenburg wore a suit and tie, and said little but to answer direct questions from Judge Ludwig.
Judge Ludwig confirmed with Brandenburg that it was his intention to enter a guilty plea for both charges, pursuant to his plea agreement. Brandenburg said yes, that was his intention.
In answering questions Tuesday, Brandenburg affirmed to Ludwig he was giving up his right not to incriminate himself, and that he would be admitting his guilt.
On Brandenburg’s history of mental health, on which the Probation Department reported prior issues with depression, Ludwig asked directly if Brandenburg is currently dealing with those issues.
“That is something from the past,” Brandenburg said. “I haven’t, I haven’t had an issue with it for three or four years, difficult for me to say specifically when that stopped but it’s not something I’m currently treating or dealing with.”
His lawyer argued — as Brandenburg said in his email confession, obtained by ABC News in FBI filings — that his client’s difficult divorce proceedings had increased his emotional strain; and that he was no longer in a position to do harm, with his pharmacist’s license turned in, and his guns turned over to the authorities.
Ludwig said that holding “crazy” views isn’t a basis for detainment, but ordered Brandenburg to submit to GPS monitoring until his sentencing and undergo a mental health evaluation.
“This is an unusual case. It’s a very unusual crime,” Ludwig said. “This isn’t the run of the mill stuff we are used to seeing.”
“The fact that the court has not remanded the defendant into custody should not be taken as any sort of indication that the court doesn’t view this as a very serious crime,” Ludwig added.
Brandenburg’s federal sentencing date has been set for June 8. He is now on home detention, at his parents’ house.
ABC News spoke with Brandenburg’s attorney Tuesday evening, who had no comment on the record.
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