Updated: 4:23 p.m. | Posted: 10:43 a.m.
A Maplewood woman has been found guilty of third-degree murder for selling heroin to a 20-year-old man who died of an overdose last year.
A Hennepin County judge ruled that drug dealer Beverly Burrell, 31, played a substantial part in the death of Luke Ronnei. Burrell is also charged with four other overdose deaths. Those cases are pending.
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On the night of Jan 6, 2016, Ronnei and a friend bought a gram of heroin from Burrell, according to trial testimony. Ronnei gave some drugs to his friend and then went home. No one saw Ronnei inject the fatal dose. He was pronounced dead in his bedroom just before 1 p.m. the next day.
Ronnei's mom Colleen said the guilty verdict is a small but significant victory. The family will hold a quiet celebration.
"The thing that's really wrenching is that at the end of the day, we still don't have Luke," Colleen Ronnei said. "And we're never going to get our son back."
Colleen Ronnei said she hopes her family's struggle with heroin addiction can help other families. She hopes law enforcement will be more willing to investigate future drug overdoses as possible murders.
"Maybe drug dealers will think twice before that taking that up as a line of work. Because they will get investigated," she said.
Evidence showed that Ronnei consistently bought heroin from Burrell, Judge Paul Scoggin wrote in a memorandum supporting his verdict.
"Because he bought a significant amount of heroin from the defendant hours before the overdose, the possibility that someone else provided the fatal dose does not rise to the level of reasonable doubt," the judge said.
However, defense attorney Craig Cascarano disagrees with that conclusion. He said there was a 17-hour time span between Ronnei buying drugs from Burrell and the time he was found unconscious by his parents.
"It's our belief that during that period of time, he actually purchased drugs from another person which precipitated his death," the defense attorney said.
Cascarano said that belief is based on the statements of current and former heroin addicts who testified during the trial.
Two of Ronnei's friends who said they also bought drugs from Burrell testified that while she was reliable, it's not uncommon for addicts to have back up sources in case their main dealers are dry.
Cascarano said both he and Burrell are disappointed by the verdict. They plan to appeal.
Cascarano is defending Burrell against similar charges in the overdose deaths of four other men.
Scoggin heard testimony in the case of one of the other men, Max Tillitt, who bought heroin from Burrell in September 2015. Tillitt's fiance, Holly Schulz, testified that she saw Tillitt buy heroin from Burrell and then inject himself with it later in a hotel room.
Schulz said Tillitt almost immediately started to act "crazy." Tillitt soon collapsed and stopped breathing. He died in the hospital the next day. According to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's office, Tillitt died of a mix of heroin and methamphetamine toxicity.
Dr. Owen Middleton, assistant chief medical examiner, testified that Tillitt also had 60 percent blockage of an artery near his heart.
Cascarano said those details will make it hard for the government to prove its case. He said it's also important to note that Schulz told police after Tillitt's death that she'd ingested some of the heroin too.
"That fact that she didn't die, and Mr. Tillitt died is clear evidence that the methamphetamine -- and he had cocaine in his system as well -- were the contributing causes of his death."
However, in his written closing arguments, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Thad Tudor wrote that Tillitt's blocked artery and ingestion of meth are "irrelevant." Tudor argues that the heroin doesn't need to be the sole cause of Tillitt's death in order to warrant a guilty verdict.
Cascarano has until July to submit his closing arguments in Tillitt's case.