Colleen Ronnei stealthily followed her son, keeping her distance so he wouldn't spot her. Then she watched as he bought heroin in an Edina mall parking lot last summer.

Ronnei was desperate to save Luke; he was desperate to be "clean" again. But the pull of heroin was overwhelming at times, testing his will to remain clean.

"I needed to get this drug dealer off the street," Ronnei recalled. She wrote down the dealer's license plate and went to the police. There was little they could do at that point, they said.

Less than a year later, Luke Ronnei was dead at 20 years old. So were two other young Minnesota men who bought drugs from the same dealer.

Now, amid their devastating heartbreak, the three mothers have found one another and a tinge of solace: the heroin dealer, Beverly N. Burrell, is in jail, charged with three counts of murder.

"Burrell is a known heroin seller and this time the heroin was bad," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office will prosecute the cases.

"Some had fentanyl in it. Some had methamphetamine in it," Freeman said. The mixture was deadly and "she sold it to them knowing it was bad."

Synthetic fentanyl, which recently began showing up in Minnesota, is being added to boost the potency of heroin. Nearly 50 times stronger than heroin, it's also proving to be more deadly.

Overdose deaths attributed to heroin jumped from 16 in 2010 to 85 in 2014, according to medical examiners in eight Minnesota counties.

Yes, heroin use is illegal, Freeman added, but that doesn't mean people deserve to die from it.

Burrell, 30, known as "Ice" on the street, is charged with third-degree murder and several drug-related charges in connection with the deaths of Luke Ronnei of Chanhassen, Max Tillitt, 21, of Eden Prairie, and Nick Petrick, 29, of New Prague.

Those who get addicted to heroin struggle to leave its grasp, the three mothers said. "It's not what they want for their lives at all," Julie Petrick said. "The dealers are all profiting from those struggles. And people are dying."

Dealing death

Luke Ronnei had long suffered from anxiety and depression. When medications didn't seem to work for him, he self-medicated with marijuana.

He was in his first year at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls when he bought what he thought was marijuana wax. Instead, it was heroin, his mother said.

"For some people, you go through that door and you can't come back out," she said. "It scared the hell out of him."

Once in recovery, Luke Ronnei transferred to Arizona State University and seemed to do well until he relapsed last summer.

"He said, 'Mom, I'm just so tired,' " Ronnei recalled, her voice cracking. " 'I'm so tired of battling this. You just have to let me go.' "

Never, she said. "You can get through this. We're not going to let you go."

As the summer winded down, Ronnei once again surreptitiously tracked her son to another drug buy — this time near the Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis. A steady stream of people walked up to the dealer's window.

"There were eight exchanges in three minutes," Ronnei said.

By fall, Luke Ronnei was back in recovery and at school in Arizona when he called his mom to tell her she needed to call the police. Max Tillitt was dead from a heroin overdose. Luke Ronnei didn't personally know him, but they used the same dealer.

Started with a football injury

Max Tillitt began using drugs to self-medicate as an Eden Prairie High School junior after he suffered a head and neck injury playing football.

"He was never the same after that," said his mother, DeeDee Tillitt. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and depression. "He spent the winter in a dark room, experiencing dark thoughts," she said. "He was suicidal."

He eased the pain with marijuana, "other stuff" and then heroin, Tillitt said. Five years later in 2014, he made his way into treatment, relapsing and getting back into recovery over the next year.

While in a residential treatment center in June 2015, doctors also treated him for bipolar and sleep disorders. "He said, 'Mom, this is the first time in three years that I have felt good about myself,' " DeeDee Tillitt recalled her son saying. "We thought, 'Oh, my gosh, we're going to save him.' "

But when the insurance coverage for the residential treatment center ran out after 21 days, Max Tillitt and his family were back on their own. When an adverse reaction to the bipolar medication forced him to stop taking it, Max Tillitt's life spiraled out of control again. He couldn't sleep, his mind raced and he found his way back to heroin.

He died of an overdose in September.

"Max always wanted to save everyone else," DeeDee Tillitt said. "But he couldn't save himself. … I almost wish he would have had cancer because then he would have the best practice and protocols and people would show up and give you casseroles."

After Max's death, as her son suggested, Colleen Ronnei went to the police, identifying Burrell as Tillitt's dealer.

"They said 'Thank you. We'll call you when we make an arrest,' " Ronnei said. "I never heard another thing."

As winter arrived, Luke Ronnei chalked up four months being drug-free. He and his parents decided he should spend his three-week Christmas break in Australia with friends rather than return to Minnesota, where "too many of his friends were struggling with addiction."

On the January night he returned to Minnesota from his trip, a friend picked him up and they found their dealer.

Ronnei heard her son wake the next morning, reminding him they had an appointment with his "addiction doctor." Three hours later she watched her husband perform CPR in an effort to revive their son. "People just don't understand the pull of this drug," she said, her trembling voice turning to frustration then anger.

He wanted a future

Nick Petrick was 25 when he broke up with a girlfriend and headed to the International Eelpout Festival in Walker, Minn., where he got into a car with some people and smoked heroin. "I don't believe he knew what he was trying," said his mom, Julie Petrick. A week later he suddenly woke up in the middle of the night, craving heroin, she said.

"That was the beginning of his demise," Petrick said.

She learned he was a heroin addict 1½ years ago while she battled breast cancer.

"I told him, 'I just lost my mom a year ago and I'm fighting to save my life. And it looks like you're throwing yours away. You know, I can't lose you,' " she recalled.

He went into treatment. "He had long bouts when he was totally fine, and then all of sudden, he was off," Julie Petrick said. "Oh, my God, he wanted to be clean. He was in a relationship with a woman. He wanted to have a family. He wanted to have a future."

On April 11, he got ready to head to his construction job. "He packed his lunch and said he would see us that night."

He never came home.

Four days would pass before the Eden Prairie Police discovered him dead in his car in a Costco parking lot.

"We miss him every day," Petrick said. He won't be at his sister's wedding. He won't be there to help harvest the family vineyard that he meticulously pruned this spring.

Julie Petrick recently attended the funeral for the 19-year-old son of a friend who died of an overdose.

"It's an epidemic," she said.

Ronnei agrees and wants to put a dent in it by talking more. "There's so much shame and judgment," she said. "If you read the obituaries, every frigging week there's three 20-year-olds who just died suddenly and no one is talking about it."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788