Federal prosecutors may bring charges in synthetic drug case

They may prosecute 21-year-old facing murder charges in fatal Blaine party. Murder suspect must agree to spend nearly 10 years in prison to avoid possible federal prosecution.

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Jill Robinson, standing in front of a photo of her son Trevor Robinson last month, got tearful while talking about his death. He died hours after taking the synthetic drug 2C-E at a Blaine party in March.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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If the man accused of providing synthetic drugs at a deadly Blaine party this spring doesn't plead guilty to third-degree murder, federal prosecutors may also bring charges against him, according to an unusual letter the U.S. attorney's office sent to local prosecutors.

In the Oct. 4 letter, federal prosecutors promised to forgo prosecuting Timothy R. Lamere if he agrees to spend nearly 10 years behind bars and help authorities pursue other potential targets in the case, according to the letter, which was obtained by the Star Tribune.

Lamere, 21, was charged in March with murder for supplying 2C-E to Trevor Robinson, who overdosed and died hours after taking the synthetic drug. Ten others who took the drug became sick and were hospitalized.

Federal prosecutors said they have an interest in the case against Lamere because it involves 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.

Authorities have not disclosed the name of the website Lamere visited to buy the drug or the name of the manufacturer.

In their letter, U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven L. Schleicher pointed out that, while they have not yet decided on a course of action, Lamere could be charged with a drug-related crime in federal court even if he's convicted in state court. Lamere faces a maximum guideline sentence of nine years, nine months if convicted of third-degree murder in state court, but he would serve at least 20 years if convicted on federal drug charges, federal prosecutors noted.

An important pretrial hearing in Lamere's case is scheduled for Friday and the trial is set for next month.

The federal letter has "chilled our ability" to negotiate a different plea agreement with the county attorney, said Virginia Murphrey, chief public defender for the 10th Judicial District, which includes Anoka County.

Paul Young, head of the violent crime division at the county attorney's office, wouldn't discuss if any plea agreements are on the table. It's not uncommon for a plea agreement to be made public at a pretrial hearing.

In the current situation, Murphrey said, the federal government is a "gorilla sitting on your head." She said the prospect of a 20-year sentence is a huge hammer.

While it's not uncommon for federal prosecutors to discuss ongoing cases and potential federal penalties with state prosecutors and defense attorneys, "you don't often see those things in writing," said Dan Scott, a former veteran federal public defender.

Federal regulations require some level of approval by the U.S. Department of Justice before a state U.S. attorney's office can prosecute the same person after he or she has been prosecuted in state court, University of Minnesota law Prof. Richard Frase said.

"This isn't a totally empty threat, but how often would they bother to prosecute if the person was already convicted of a serious charge in state court?" Frase said. "You have to wonder to what extent they may be helping the local prosecution to be in a better position for a plea agreement."

The county attorney's office said it didn't ask federal officials to outline a specific plea agreement. Young said the federal government's proposal is not binding.

Brad Zunker, the public defender assigned to Lamere's case, asked in June if Lamere would face federal charges in the case, but the U.S. attorney's office didn't take a position at the time, Murphrey said.

Jeanne Cooney, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment on the case.

The death of Robinson, 19, of Blaine, became a high priority for state and federal lawmakers. Though federal authorities argue that 2C-E was already illegal under a federal law banning drugs that are chemically similar to illegal drugs, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar 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.

Many of Robinson's family members have had mixed feelings about the state murder charges, said his aunt, Wendy Hatchner. They know Lamere didn't intend for Robinson to die, she said, and they feel for him and his family.

Lamere, she said, was basically "responsible for the death of one of his best friends. Could there be a greater lesson than that? At the same time, I understand they're wanting to send a message to the people still producing this poison and selling this stuff. ... How much of that should be weighed all on Tim's case, I don't know."

Hatchner said she hopes authorities will try to stop the manufacturing and sale of synthetic drugs.

"I hope as much energy is spent finding the places that are producing this," she said.

dchanen@startribune.com • 612-673-4465 plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102

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