updated 8/5/2005 11:45:37 AM ET 2005-08-05T15:45:37

A former crime lab technician with the Missouri State Highway Patrol pleaded guilty to stealing confiscated drugs — thefts that forced prosecutors to dismiss or decline to prosecute nearly 400 cases.

Authorities said 31-year-old Matthew Barb, of Ozark, was responsible for testing about one-third of the suspected illegal drugs arriving at the patrol’s lab from southwest Missouri. He was charged in August 2004.

Prosecutors in Greene County, where Barb pleaded guilty Thursday, said they were forced to dismiss or decline 284 cases because the theft allegations tainted them. In neighboring Christian County, nearly 100 drug cases were dismissed.

Barb faces a maximum of seven years in prison, but as part of a plea agreement, prosecutors will recommend a five-year term. Sentencing is scheduled for next month.

“I think it’s fair,” said assistant Greene County prosecutor Mike Huddleston, noting the crime was Barb’s first offense.

Defense attorney Dee Wampler said he will ask a judge for probation with the understanding that Barb would undergo drug treatment and counseling. He is already getting counseling, as well as treatment for depression, the lawyer said.

“He was a good criminalist and chemist with the Missouri State Highway Patrol,” Wampler said. “This matter would ... never have been discovered but for the fact that Mr. Barb came forward.”

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