SAN FRANCISCO – The e-mail from one California prison official to another almost reads like something out of a spy novel: "May have a secret and important mission for you."
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation undersecretary Scott Kernan sent that message to assistant secretary Anthony Chaus on Sept. 29. The "mission" turned out to be a trip to Arizona for a fresh supply of sodium thiopental, the so-called knock-out drug used in the state's three-drug lethal injection.
California's only batch was set to expire and the drug was in short supply — as the state's first execution in five years loomed.
In August, Kernan, Chaus and other officials began a desperate worldwide search over two months for the drug, according to nearly 1,000 pages of documents released late Wednesday.
Kernan needed Chaus to send "one of your So Cal guys" to the Arizona State Prison Complex to pick up 12 grams of sodium thiopental.
The next day, on Sept. 30, Warden Carson McWilliams in Florence, Ariz., handed a California prison agent 24 vials of it. The agent then drove more than eight hours to Gorman, where he handed the vials off to another CDCR agent to complete the trip to San Quentin Prison, which houses the state's death chamber.
The trip went through even though California authorities on Sept. 29 had called off the planned Sept. 30 execution of Albert Greenwood Brown because of an adverse court ruling connected to the expiration date of the sodium thiopental on hand.
California had earlier "loaned" Arizona pancuronium bromide, another vital ingredient in the lethal injection, so it could carry out an execution.
The documents on California's lethal injection drug search were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and posted on its Northern California chapter's website.
They detail the state's attempt to replace Illinois-based Hospira Inc. as a sodium thiopental supplier. Hospira, the only U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, ran into production problems that prevented it from delivering a fresh supply of the drug to California.
The state's only supply of the drug on hand expired on Oct. 1 and resolving legal challenges brought by the condemned inmate would delay his execution beyond that date, leaving the state attorney general's office no choice but to halt its attempts to proceed with the execution.
The office said the state won't schedule any more executions until a federal lawsuit claiming the state's lethal injection process is unconstitutional is resolved.
Most of the documents are internal e-mails that show California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials scrambling to find a new supplier beginning in August because of the problems at Hospira, which led to a nationwide shortage of the drug in nearly every state that carries out lethal injections, except in Texas.
The e-mails show officials complaining about a Texas prison system — described in a local newspaper story as "well stocked" — apparently refusing to loan any sodium thiopental anywhere. Texas has executed 17 inmates this year and plans three more lethal injections by year's end.
"It is unfortunate that Texas would not share some of its 'well stocked' supply to help sister states but down the road they may need help in some other way and this position does not help their image," a Sept. 29 e-mail to Kernan states. "Nevertheless, in the prison business things are always changing and Texas is no exception."
The sender's name was blacked out by prison department lawyers before the e-mail was turned over the ACLU. It ends by saying "Sorry we were not able to help more."
Texas authorities were unavailable because of the late hour the documents were released.
California authorities called nearly 100 hospitals and even considered a supplier in Pakistan until acquiring 521 grams of the drug manufactured by Archimedes Pharma of Great Britain. The department still hasn't received the shipment, which is being held on the East Coast awaiting clearance from the Food and Drug Administration, spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.
Thornton said Wednesday night that the documents highlight the department's determination to carry out the execution of Brown, who was convicted in Riverside County of raping and killing a high school student and then taunting her mother.
"We have always said we were actively seeking a new supply of sodium thiopental," Thornton said.
The department managed to scrounge 8 grams of the drug on Aug. 24 from a supplier not identified in the documents.
"It is enough to do one execution," Kernan told department Secretary Matt Cade in an e-mail. "Bad news is drug expires in Oct."