Moments before a prolific Twin Cities heroin dealer was sentenced to more than 14 years in prison for the overdose deaths of two men, the father and brother of one victim made a plea for leniency, stunning some of those in the Hennepin County courtroom.

The revelation came Thursday at the first sentencing for Beverly Burrell, who was tried and convicted of third-degree murder in the deaths of Max Tillitt and Luke Ronnei in a statewide push to get heroin off the streets by going after distributors.

Burrell, 31, of Maplewood, known on the streets as "Ice," also faces third-degree murder charges for selling heroin that killed three other men.

Broken with grief, family members of Tillitt and Ronnei stood before Hennepin County District Judge Paul Scoggin to talk about the never-ending pain of losing a loved one to an insidious addiction that they wrestled to overcome.

For some, like Colleen Ronnei and her family, the "longest possible" prison sentence for drug dealers would help serve justice and begin to stem the heroin epidemic.

But to Stephen Tillitt, Max's father, a long prison sentence would serve little purpose.

Stephen Tillitt, his voice cracking at times, talked about a son who began using drugs after suffering a concussion during high school football practice and falling into depression. Max Tillitt, 21, of Eden Prairie, had told his family that he regretted using drugs but that the addiction was overpowering.

"Max knew the dangers of heroin use," his father said. Although the disease crippled his willpower, Max bought the drug from Burrell and he put it in his body, Stephen Tillitt said.

"I deplore those who profit from the misery of addicts and their families," Stephen Tillitt said. "They should be stopped."

But he argued that Burrell be given some leniency by being allowed to simultaneously serve the two sentences that she would receive for the death of his son and that of Luke Ronnei, 20, of Chanhassen.

The judge ultimately decided Burrell would serve each sentence separately.

"It saddens me when I look at Ms. Burrell, a young African-American woman who I am told has been a devoted mother and has been a devoted daughter," Stephen Tillitt said. "I'm sure she didn't have the advantages I had growing up, nor that Max had. It saddens me to think of the disadvantages her children may now face."

Stephen Tillitt also read a statement from his surviving son, Riley. "With Ms. Burrell off the streets, her clients won't magically quit using — Max never did," Riley wrote. "It's likely that overdoses in Minnesota will continue to grow, regardless of how many people we lock up."

Riley stressed that his call for leniency isn't because he forgives Burrell, "but because the only way for us to save other people like Max … is to recognize that incarceration is not the answer to a public health crisis."

But for Colleen Ronnei, locking up Burrell for the longest possible time not only keeps one more drug dealer off the streets, but it would send a message to others.

"All these young men who passed away had been working on recovery," she said after the sentencing. "If you remove the source that trips them up, the better chance they have of recovery."

In search of having something good come out of her son's death, Colleen Ronnei has become passionate about fighting the drug epidemic. "My hope now … is that his tragic death isn't repeated again and again," she said. If dealers choose to sell drugs that cause death, they should be held accountable, she added.

Both the prosecutor and the judge acknowledged that giving drug dealers long prison terms isn't going to resolve a complex and growing epidemic.

Getting Burrell off the streets since her arrest "hasn't made a dent in the heroin epidemic we're facing here in the Twin Cities," said Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Thad Tudor. The medical examiner's office is overwhelmed with overdose deaths and the county attorney's office is inundated with third-degree murder cases related to some of those deaths, he said.

But Burrell is the most prolific heroin dealer that Hennepin County has seen, Tudor said. "She knew she was killing these kids," he said. "They were nothing more than a dollar sign to her.

Burrell's attorney, Craig Cascarano, who plans to appeal her cases, said drug users share some of the responsibility. "This crime takes two people to commit, "he said. "Nobody forced these kids to use the drugs. It's almost like an assumption of risk."

Standing before the judge moments before he issued his sentence, Burrell asked for "another chance, because I am a good person and I am not a monster."

In the end, the judge acknowledged that Burrell had her own struggles in life to overcome. "It seems you have been kicked from pillar to post," he said. But her actions had a devastating effect on two families.

"Like it or not, you played a pivotal role in ripping two good young men from their families by feeding them the same poison that worked such hardship in your own life," Scoggin said. "The acts that you do in life do have devastating effects on others."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788