With a more serious federal charge hanging over his head, Timothy LaMere agreed in court Thursday to a state-maximum 10 years in prison for supplying the synthetic drug that killed his close friend at a party in Blaine last year.

Showing no emotion, LaMere, 22, spoke briefly about how he ordered the substance online but didn't know it was illegal. Handing out what turned out to be the drug 2C-E at the party, he saw Trevor Robinson, 19, snort it and "start to have a bad experience." Sometime later, LaMere said, "I was in an ambulance, and Trevor ended up dying."

Ten others who took the drug became ill and were hospitalized. LaMere was charged with felony third-degree murder last March.

The high-profile case prompted heightened awareness about the dangers of synthetic drugs, which are easily bought off the Internet with buyers never knowing exactly what they're getting. It also provoked a highly unusual letter from the top levels of federal prosecution that put pressure on local prosecutors to seek a tough sentence.

The U.S. attorney's office sent the letter to the Anoka County attorney's office in October saying that it might pursue charges against LaMere if local authorities didn't cut a maximum-prison sentence deal with him. The nearly 10-year sentence is the longest allowed by the state's sentencing guideline for third-degree murder; the federal penalties would have required a minimum 20-year prison sentence.

Although LaMere admitted in court that he caused his friend's death, the defense stressed the letter motivated his plea agreement. But it was clear that the pressure from above rankled local authorities.

"It's unfortunate that Washington, D.C., dictated business in Anoka County today," said Virginia Murphrey, chief public defender for the 10th Judicial District, which includes Anoka County. Prosecutor Paul Young asked LaMere if the letter coerced him into making the plea. LaMere responded that it didn't. Young pressed for clarification by asking LaMere if it gave him the additional information he needed to know before making his decision. LaMere agreed that it did.

Tougher laws sought

Most of the hearing focused on the three-page letter from the U.S. attorney's office, which the Star Tribune obtained in October. The letter was sent to the prosecution and Brad Zunker, LaMere's attorney, after Zunker asked the U.S. attorney's office if his client would face federal charges.

Federal prosecutors promised to forgo prosecuting LaMere if he agreed to spend nearly 10 years behind bars and help authorities pursue other potential targets in the case. The prosecutors said they had an interest in the case against LaMere because it involved an illegal drug purchased over the Internet.

Web-based retailers have become an easy place to obtain synthetic drugs even though many states -- including Minnesota -- have recently started enforcing laws aimed at reducing access to so-called research chemicals, bath salts and other synthetic substances, according to an ongoing Star Tribune investigation.

Though federal authorities argue that 2C-E was already illegal under a federal law banning drugs that are chemically similar to illegal drugs. In Washington, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced legislation specifically banning the substance. State legislators also made the drug illegal, along with its chemical cousins.

The drug is a powder most often compared to Ecstasy, creating upbeat mood swings and high energy.

The Anoka County attorney's office had internal discussions about a possible plea agreement before they received the letter. Plea discussions aren't uncommon in criminal cases because the majority are resolved through pleas and don't go to trial, Young said.

The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment about the case Thursday.

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said his office looked at all the facts supplied by law enforcement and decided the murder charge was appropriate.

He declined to comment when asked whether LaMere's two stays in a hospital psych ward in 2010 and 2011 for complications for his bipolar condition played into their decision for a plea agreement.

"It's a tragedy for all the families involved," he said. "People experimented with a substance and didn't know how powerful it was."

Formal sentencing will be May 25.

United in tragedy

Before the hearing, Robinson's mother and LaMere's parents met for the first time. They hugged, with LaMere's mother quietly sobbing, "I'm so sorry." The families sat next to each other during the hearing.

Afterward, the LaMeres declined to comment. Jill Robinson, Trevor's mother, said she felt horrible for them. "Timmy loved my son and wouldn't have done anything to intentionally hurt him," she said. "Timmy isn't a bad boy. He's just a kid."

LaMere lived with the Robinsons for a few months before Trevor's death. John Robinson, Trevor's older brother, even drove LaMere to the party in Blaine.

John Robinson didn't really know his brother until he moved to Minnesota when he was a teenager. Trevor's smile was infectious, he said. John Robinson literally ran to the hospital when he heard his brother had overdosed.

Jill Robinson talked joyfully about Trevor's son, Bentley, who will be 2 in September. She called him a "walking, talking Trevor."

She described her son as somebody who didn't pass judgment on people and found the good in everybody. He had positive plans for his future, but his death probably made many kids get sober or not use drugs, she said.

"How can he be so nice and not be on Earth anymore?" she said. "We miss him so badly.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465