Two men who were heavily involved in east-metro youth drug trafficking were sentenced Friday to serve time behind bars for the overdose death last winter of a Woodbury teenager.
Alexander L. Claussen, 20, and Cole A. Matenaer, 19, were sentenced by Judge Richard Ilkka in separate hearings that quickly became tearful reminders of a young life lost.
Tom Fitzgerald, his voice rising while delivering a statement in Washington County District Court, said Claussen and Matenaer preyed on his daughter, Tara, 17, without any regard for her well-being, putting money before conscience.
Tara Fitzgerald died Jan. 11, 2014, after swallowing a designer psychedelic drug during a sleepover with a friend.
"As I speak, drug dealers are giving poison to our kids in our schools," Tom Fitzgerald said. "The synthetic drugs clearly have set a precedent for killing people in tiny doses."
Five people were charged last May with third-degree murder in connection with Tara's death.
Before Friday's sentencing, both Claussen and Matenaer expressed remorse and apologized to the Fitzgerald family. Both also vowed to put years of drug addiction behind them.
"I know I put everyone involved through hell and back," Claussen told Ilkka. The judge sentenced him to about six years in prison for his role in Fitzgerald's death.
Ilkka sentenced Matenaer to 15 years of probation, a year in the Washington County jail and 80 hours of community service. The judge said Matenaer received a lighter sentence because he showed progress in treatment and had cooperated with investigators in the case against Claussen.
"This mistake will haunt me for the rest of my life," Matenaer said of his crime.
Hopes they'll change
Tom Fitzgerald said later that he doubted that the men were sincere about their remorse, but added he hoped they could change.
"I don't want to see another young life destroyed," he said of Matenaer, who told the court he prayed for Tara.
Matenaer pleaded guilty in August to third-degree murder and Claussen pleaded guilty in September to the same charge.
Tara, a Woodbury High School junior who had been in good spirits after posting a strong score on a college-readiness exam, died from an overdose of the substance known as 25i-NBOMe, sometimes called "N-Bomb" or "Smiles," according to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
The case reflected growing alarm among law officers that the dealing of synthetic drugs had reached crisis proportions. Prosecutor Imran Ali, who had wanted a prison sentence for Matenaer, said the case resulted from extraordinary cooperation among law enforcement agencies.
"In terms of deterrence, [this case] has immense value," Fred Fink, criminal division chief in the County Attorney's office, said after the sentencings.
Besides Claussen and Matenaer, three others were charged in May with being part of a chain of sales that began with Claussen distributing the substance from his residence in St. Cloud.
Tom Fitzgerald, in his statement to the court, asked why the defendants' parents hadn't interceded in their sons' drug dealing. In a separate statement, Mark Claussen said the son sitting in court wasn't the son he had raised.
"We had no idea Alex was selling drugs," the elder Claussen said, sobbing as he spoke. "He needs help with his addictions."
Matenaer's attorney said Matenaer had completed chemical dependency treatment and is not the same person he was a year ago. Claussen's attorney described Claussen in court Friday as "not a man as a boy." His crime "doesn't mean he's without salvation," he said.
Hearings to determine whether the other teenagers charged will be prosecuted in adult court will be held soon.
Blair Emerson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.