5 teens charged with murder in Woodbury drug death

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput
Pete Orput speaks at a Stillwater press conference about charges in a Woodbury teen's drug death on Wednesday, May 28, 2014.
Tim Nelson / MPR News

Five teenagers are facing murder charges for the drug overdose death of another teen in January.

Tara Fitzgerald, 17, died after she took the drugs purchased from a classmate at Woodbury High School, Washington County prosecutors said.

Fitzgerald and a friend slipped pink squares of paper into their mouths and waited. About two hours later, things started to go wrong.

According to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday in Washington County Court in Stillwater, the Woodbury High School student soon started shaking with muscle spasms. Within hours she was unresponsive. Before noon that Saturday, she was dead.

Authorities say the case demonstrates how dangerous illicit and synthetic drugs can be.

"We have one deceased young lady, who was a high school student, and a number of her friends who were distributing drugs are being held to account for that," Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said.

Fitzgerald's death was different from about a dozen other deadly overdoses in the last year and a half, Orput said.

"The difference from these other drug overdose deaths is that for the first time, when we all teamed up — Woodbury police, the Sheriff's office, and my prosecutors — we were able to go all the way up the distribution chain, to where we believe the source of this was coming from," he said.

Police followed the supply chain to an alleged dealer in St. Cloud.

Prosecutors charged Cole Matenaer, of Woodbury, and Alexander Claussen, of St. Cloud, both 19, with third-degree murder and selling drugs in Tara Fitzgerald's death. Prosecutors also charged two boys and a girl, all 17, in juvenile court. But the three may face trial as adults on third-degree murder and drug sale charges.

If convicted, all could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

Authorities say they traced the fatal drugs back through text messages and social media, step by step through a series of buys, at least one suspected to have been at Woodbury High School.

When police arrested one alleged supplier, officers recorded conversations of jail calls between him, his mother and a girlfriend in which he told both that he'd sold the drugs that killed Fitzgerald, authorities said.

Police tracked that supplier's cell phone to another cell phone in Sauk Center, and set up a sting to buy the supposed LSD from a suspected dealer that used the phone.

The criminal complaint alleges that Claussen sold five doses of the drug to an undercover buyer in St. Cloud. A search of his home in April found another 305 doses of the drug, according to the court file.

The drug found in Fitzgerald's body wasn't LSD, but a synthetic hallucinogen known as 25i-NBOMe. According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, it has no legal use and authorities have linked the drug to at least 19 recent deaths in the United States.

Woodbury Police chief Lee Vague said he doubts Fitzgerald or her friends knew what they were taking.

"You're buying this piece of paper with something on it, and somebody tells you it's LSD or whatever it is," Vague said. "There's no way you can know that. There's no way you can know how much is on it. There's no way you can know where this was sourced from. It's just incredibly, incredibly dangerous behavior, and it seems to me as we were doing this investigation, there was a very casual attitude amongst young people that this was safe."

There have already been six drug overdose deaths in Washington County in the first three months of 2014, and Sheriff Bill Hutton said he fears there will be more.

"That's not to even count for the number of overdoses where individuals actually do not die," Hutton said. "So this is epidemic. It continues. It's not only the synthetics, as you're all aware of the synthetic problems we're having. It's the prescription medication problems and the heroin. And the question needs to be asked, 'when is enough enough? '"

People who knew Tara, a junior at Woodbury High School, said they were devastated by her mistake, and death.

"She was a very eclectic girl, with quite a few different interests, with great musical talents, and acting," said Woodbury softball coach Bill Hedahl, whose daughter was a friend of Fitzgerald. "And Tara always got good grades."

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