Opioids killed 35 Minnesotans in April 2016. Only 1 was named Prince

Photos of Josh Thompson with family members are displayed on boards.
Photos of Josh Thompson with family members are displayed on boards, but relatives were too distraught immediately after his death last year to have a formal memorial service.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

There were 35 in all. Their ages ranged from 19 to 63. They came from all over Minnesota.

Only one was named Prince.

They included a nurse, a construction worker and a phone technician. One was an economist, another a college student. There was a Marine veteran who'd served in Iraq. They were sons and daughters, mothers, fathers and grandparents.

They shared one sad, common thread of history: In April 2016, opioids killed them or were a contributing factor in their deaths.

The world knows Prince, who died a year ago Friday of a fentanyl overdose. Hundreds of other Minnesotans who've died during the years-long epidemic of heroin and other opioids remain largely unknown to anyone beyond those who loved them.

Their names and causes of death are recorded in the Minnesota Health Department's database of the dead. In 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, at least 338 people in Minnesota died after taking opioids, a figure that's risen steadily since 1999.

Here are a few stories of others who died in April 2016.

Ryan Boen was featured in DIG Magazine in 2003.
Ryan Boen was featured in DIG Magazine in 2003.
Ricky Adam | DIG Magazine

'I didn't know enough'

Ryan Boen of St. Cloud was an avid BMX bike racer and stunt performer. He was 33 when he died.

Despite his immense talent, Sandra Boen said her son turned down many sponsorship opportunities because he didn't want to endorse companies he didn't like. He deplored animal cruelty and became a vegan in his late teens.

For years, Ryan suffered from anxiety and depression after his older brother was killed in a car crash in 2001.

Six years later, his younger brother, who survived the accident, suffered a fatal seizure.

The pain was too much for Ryan, and he became addicted to alcohol, Sandra Boen said. He quit drinking, then relapsed on marijuana and anti-anxiety meds. On April 19 last year, after time in detox, he bought several fentanyl patches from a dealer he'd known for years.

Boen saw her son chewing on one of the patches that night. But she didn't realize just how dangerous that was until she found him dead on her couch the next morning.

"There must have been a point where he was out of control and I should have called an ambulance. But I didn't know," she said. "I didn't know enough about the drug. And perhaps that's part of the problem for everybody."

Boen said she hopes Prince's death the following day from the same drug will continue to draw attention to fentanyl's dangers.

Ryan Boen was featured in DIG Magazine in 2003.
Ryan Boen was featured in DIG Magazine for BMX riders in 2003.
Ricky Adam | DIG Magazine

Amy Lauer of St. Cloud pleaded guilty to third-degree murder for selling Ryan the patches. She was sentenced this month to time served plus 25 years probation and was also ordered to pay restitution. Lauer declined comment for this story. Her attorney said she remains distraught over Ryan's death and is working on her own recovery from substance abuse.

Sandra Boen said the legal process left many questions unanswered, including how Lauer obtained prescriptions for such a powerful narcotic and why she got caught reselling it only after it was too late.

Boen said her son sent her a letter while he was going through addiction treatment. "He wrote: 'I hope you never have to bury me. You've been through enough.'"

She said Ryan repeated those words the last time they spoke.

Not 'a number'

Josh Thompson
Josh Thompson
Courtesy Louisa Cox

On the same day Boen lost her last surviving son, Theresa Cox of Minneapolis lost her younger brother, 48-year-old Josh Thompson.

A member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, Thompson was a fixture in the Native American community of south Minneapolis. Cox said the happiest time in Thompson's life was in the 1990s, when he was a youth worker at the American Indian Center.

Lifelong heart trouble and later chronic neck and back pain left him unable to work, but Cox said the man known inside and outside their family as "Uncle Josh" still reached out to young people as much as he was able.

"All the kids always gravitated toward him," she recalled. "He was always the one that would get up and play catch with them. He would say 'let's go play basketball.' He always had them doing stuff. And I think that's why a lot of the kids in the community remember him, because he took the time to do that."

Thompson's medical problems led him to addiction, but Cox said it remained hidden from those close to him because he had legitimate prescriptions for pain medication. Thompson died after taking oxycodone along with the street drugs methamphetamine and heroin.

Thompson's sisters Theresa Cox, right, and Roxanne Marchaud
Josh Thompson's sisters Theresa Cox, right, and Roxanne Marchaud remember how vibrant Thompson was.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Thompson's niece has also struggled with substance abuse.

Lucy Norris, Cox's daughter, said her uncle's tragedy inspired her to seek treatment.

Josh Thompson's niece Lucy Norris
Josh Thompson's niece Lucy Norris said that Thompson's death from opioid addiction was a wake-up call that inspired her to get sober.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

A year later, Norris still mourns for Thompson. She's been sober now for eight months and said she may not be alive today had Josh not died of an overdose.

"I didn't want him to be a number or a statistic," Theresa Cox said of her brother. "Of course, he is one, but I don't want him to be remembered like that."

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