Murder charges in Minn. overdose cases on the rise

Randy Ramsdell
Randy Ramsdell holds a framed photo of his sons at his home in Fort Ripley Township, Minn., on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. His son, Jason, died on Feb. 12, 2010 from a Fentanyl overdose. He was 28 years old.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

Jason Ramsdell wasn't breathing. His skin was blue when Morrison County emergency workers began trying to revive him on Feb. 12, 2010. But it was no use. The 28-year-old man was dead.

Inside his mouth deputies found a medicinal patch containing Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate similar to methadone or OxyContin that doctors prescribe to treat pain. Ramsdell didn't obtain the drug that killed him from a doctor.

Instead, he bought it from Patricia Taylor, who confessed to police that she sold Fentanyl patches to Ramsdell for $100 on the day he died. Prosecutors charged Taylor, 58, of Browerville, Minn., with third-degree murder. She pleaded guilty and is serving a 74-month sentence.

"I've been a prosecutor for just about 21 years and I had never seen, nor charged, or been a law clerk for a murder in the third degree, until I did the Taylor case," said Assistant Morrison County Attorney Todd Kosovich, who prosecuted the case.

Drug dealers have a new reason to consider the consequences of their trade. Last year, Minnesota prosecutors charged more dealers for murder in overdose cases than at any time in the last decade. Law enforcement officials say the increase in third degree murder cases is linked, in part, to the explosion in opiate-based drug abuse.

Graphic: Third degree murder charges for Minn. adult drug dealers

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Kosovich said the tragic nature of the case of Ramsdell's death made him look for what he called a "new sword" when charging Taylor. He settled on third degree murder, which applies to cases that don't involve premeditation.

"It's not an intentional murder, and that's the biggest difference," Kosovich said. "Usually the defendants themselves are devastated that they've killed a friend."

Increasingly prosecutors around the state are bringing murder charges against people who provide controlled substances that cause another person's death. According to an MPR News analysis of court records, last year, prosecutors around the state charged 12 adults and convicted three.

Todd Kosovich, Assistant Morrison County Attorney, shown on Jan. 17, 2013, charged the woman who sold Jason Ramsdell the Fentanyl that killed him with third-degree murder. He says it was the tragic nature of the case that made him think about the type of charge he could bring.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

While the numbers are small, that's more adult charges and convictions in a single year for this type of case than at any time during the last decade. By comparison, prosecutors only brought this type of murder charge in six adult cases from 2002 through 2004 and won no convictions.

While the increase in third degree murder charges isn't a coordinated effort to reduce overdose deaths, law enforcement officials say they hope it saves lives.

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health, over 1,200 people have died in Minnesota since 2000 from accidental overdoses from prescription opiates. In the Twin Cities, opiate-related deaths hit a annual record of 120 in 2011, according to another state report.

"More people are dying because of opiate use and abuse, which stems to more charges," said Brian Marquart, a senior special agent with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, who oversees narcotic investigations in the northern half of the state.

Patricia Taylor, the woman charged in Ramsdell's death, is housed at the Minnesota Correctional Facility for women in Shakopee. Taylor declined a request to be interviewed, according to a prison official who spoke with her.

At his home not far from the gates of Camp Ripley, Jason Ramsdell's father, Randy Ramsdell, said he believes justice has been served by the murder conviction.

"Do I think she should've been charged with that? Definitely," said Ramsdell, who found his son the night he overdosed and died. "Do I think she regrets doing it? I don't know. I think so, but that's just a guess on my part."

As overdose deaths continue around the state, Kosovich, the assistant Morrison County Attorney, said more murder charges and convictions are also sure to follow.

"People trading their medications know full well what these medications can and cannot do," he said. "And they've got to know if you share medications like that — you sell them, and someone dies — it's murder, pure and simple."

There has been one case already this year. Authorities in Washington County filed a third-degree murder charge against Emily Katherine Frye, 21, of Oakdale, Minn., whom they said was responsible for the death of Frank Eck, 23, of Scandia, Minn. He died of a methadone overdose.

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