Five teenagers who prosecutors say were part of a Washington County drug-dealing chain were charged with murder Wednesday in the overdose death of a Woodbury girl.
Tara Fitzgerald, 17, died Jan. 11, just hours after taking a synthetic tablet that was marketed as LSD. It was provided to her and a girlfriend by one of the defendants.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput vowed Wednesday that the charges, which stemmed from tracing the drugs "up the distribution chain," were a warning to drug dealers everywhere.
"We think there's a moral obligation to keep kids free of drugs," said Orput, visibly angry at the ongoing exchanges of deadly controlled substances throughout the metro area. "We're sending a message that suppliers will be held fully to account."
Just hours after charges were filed, Tara Fitzgerald's parents spoke of their grief and all that they lost that winter night when their daughter's sleepover with a friend turned into a tragedy.
Tom Fitzgerald said he and his wife, Mai Hoang Fitzgerald, are reminded daily of their loss when they go to the family mailbox to find more college recruitment letters addressed to their daughter, who was an honor student.
"The tragedy's always there, but it's accentuated every day," Tom Fitzgerald said, struggling to understand how Tara, a happy overachiever, could have taken a synthetic drug. "The loss is so completely devastating that I don't know how we'll get over this."
Alarm is increasing
Charged with third-degree murder in Tara Fitzgerald's death were Sydney Claire Johnson, Alistair Curtis Berg and Brian Phillip Norlander, all 17 and of Woodbury; Cole Alexander Matenaer, 19, also of Woodbury, and Alexander Lee Claussen, 19, of St. Cloud. The murder charges relate to the sale and distribution of controlled substances.
Johnson, Berg and Norlander also face a second felony charge — sale of dangerous drugs to someone under 18.
Orput said the three 17-year-olds will be certified as adults in court.
The charges reflect the growing alarm among law officers that the dealing of dangerous drugs, especially to youths, has reached crisis proportions in Washington County, across the metro area and elsewhere in Minnesota. Drug sales often are being negotiated through social media and can become pathways to the use of heroin — often with deadly consequences.
In the first quarter of 2014, six Washington County residents died of overdoses, Sheriff Bill Hutton said. Another six died last year.
"This is getting to be almost epidemic," Hutton said. "At some point people need to stand up and say this is enough."
Said Orput: "When an illegal drug enters our community, all of those involved — those who create it, sell it or give it away — are responsible for what happens with that drug. We are especially concerned with those individuals who distribute illegal drugs to juveniles. We will prosecute those individuals to the full extent of what the law allows."
The drug that killed Fitzgerald, the Ramsey County medical examiner's office determined, was a synthetic known clinically as 25i-NBOMe.
The hallucinogenic drug is referred to on the streets as "N-Bomb." It is sold in unpredictable strengths and can inflict serious damage, including heart failure and bleeding on the brain. The autopsy found that Fitzgerald died from complications of 25i-NBOMe toxicity.
According to the criminal complaint:
The Woodbury defendants were buying and selling the drug, which was supplied by Claussen, who dealt it from a place he called "the castle." Police found 305 doses of the drug in his residence.
Norlander gave the drug to Fitzgerald after a series of sales that involved the other defendants, Orput said.
The complaint said that emergency responders were dispatched to the 3400 block of Commonwealth Avenue in Woodbury on Jan. 11 because Fitzgerald "was not breathing and unresponsive after reportedly experimenting with a substance similar to LSD." She was pronounced dead after her arrival at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
The complaint also said the drug was packaged in a tinfoil wrapper that contained two small square pieces of paper, or "tabs," that were light pink.
Fitzgerald and a girlfriend who was staying overnight each placed a dose on their tongues for 20 minutes and then swallowed it.
Police later found that the girls' cellphones contained videos of them under the influence of the drug, the complaint said.
The girlfriend called her mother the next morning when she heard Fitzgerald moaning. The mother called 911 and then Fitzgerald's parents at work. They hurried home, but it was too late.
Parents warned of dangers
Orput credited Woodbury police and the Washington County Sheriff's Office for an intensive investigation that uncovered the flow of drugs from the alleged supplier to the victim.
"It's just incredibly dangerous behavior," said Woodbury Police Chief Lee Vague,.
The Fitzgeralds said that if there's a lesson in the tragedy, it's that all teenagers should know to summon help — even if they've done something wrong — to save a life.
The couple said they were "protective" of their daughter. They kept her from dating boys, preached the danger of drugs and even read her text messages and e-mails to make sure she wasn't having trouble with anyone. She was a popular girl, a leader who hung around with good kids. They have no idea why she would have taken drugs and struggle to understand it.
"It just never even crossed my mind because of the kind of person she was," Tom Fitzgerald said.
Tara Fitzgerald was a junior at Woodbury High School who had just received her driver's license. She read three to four books at a time, had a passion for making funny videos, loved skateboarding and enjoyed Harry Potter and all things British. She was a fan of the Beatles and Coldplay, among other bands, and composed songs. She also was proud of her Vietnamese and Irish Catholic backgrounds.
"She was such a joyful, supertalented, spunky kid," her father said.
The day before she died, she found out that she scored a 30 out of 36 on her ACT, the college readiness testing exam. To celebrate, she asked if a friend could stay over that night. Her parents, sleeping upstairs, said they heard the girls laughing and talking until midnight.
Sometime after that, police say, the girls took the synthetic drug.
Now, the family searches for answers, and Fitzgerald's only sibling, 12-year-old Caitlin, keeps a journal filled with memories of her older sister.
"I used to look forward to ... happiness, and now not a day goes by that I don't cry," Mai Hoang Fitzgerald said. "It's so hard because we used to have a family of four."