In emotional testimony, the surviving relatives of Spencer Johnson and Nicholas Petrick described their loss as a result of opioid overdoses, as a convicted drug dealer faced sentencing in a Hennepin County courtroom Friday.
Both men died three years ago after getting drugs from Beverly Burrell, 34. Burrell admitted selling heroin to Johnson and Petrick in April 2016, but that she didn't know the drugs were laced with fentanyl. In both cases, the medical examiner determined that heroin and fentanyl caused their deaths.
Johnson's mother, Ann Perry, said her son was "much loved" and had a "wonderful life." But his life took a turn when Johnson was prescribed painkillers to treat sore throat pain while he was in college. His seven-year addiction to heroin included 14 trips to treatment programs, she said. Johnson was found dead in a sober house on April 3, 2016.
"I don't blame Beverly Burrell for [Spencer's] substance abuse disorder," said Perry. But she does fault the pharmaceutical industry and the doctors who prescribed the drugs.
Johnson added that she forgives Burrell and her son would, too.
Other family members who spoke at the hearing blamed Burrell for putting profit before people's lives.
Petrick's mother Julie remarked on how long it took for her family to get their day in court.
"Here we stand three years later feeling defeated," she said. Petrick added that the family's only hope is that Burrell's remorse will lead her change her life. Before she left the lecturn in the middle of the courtroom floor, Petrick told Judge Martha Holton Dimick, "Nick was such a good man and I miss him every day."
After listening to six impact statements read by family members or court personnel, Holton Dimick struggled to find words to soothe the Johnson and Petrick families. She finally just said, "I am truly sorry for your losses."
Also in court were the parents of Burrell's other victims, Luke Ronnei, Max Tillitt and Dustin Peltier.
Tillitt died in 2015 after overdosing in a hotel room. Ronnei was found dead in his bedroom at his parents' house in January of 2016. Like Johnson and Petrick, both Ronnei and Tillitt were trying to break their addictions when they died.
Peltier lived in St. Cloud and his case was handled in Sherburne County. Twice deployed to Iraq, Peltier self-medicated to help his PTSD, his mother Carla said in an interview before the hearing.
"He was a proud Marine and a protector," said Peltier. She said her son was trying to get help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. After he died, she found a slip for an upcoming doctor's appointment.
Peltier said she still hasn't forgiven Burrell for selling drugs to her son.
"I don't hate her," she said. "But I don't ever want to see her get out of prison."
Burrell was sentenced to 23 years, a sentence she will serve at the same time as others for the deaths of Ronnei, Tillitt and Peltier. As a part of her deal, Burrell will not file any more appeals. The Minnesota U.S. Attorney's Office also has agreed not to charge her for selling drugs. She is scheduled to be released in 2031.
Burrell declined to speak at the hearing. She sat quietly and occasionally dabbed her eyes with tissue. Her attorney Craig Cascarano also teared up when he spoke for Burrell.
"I'm overwhelmed," he said of the words of forgiveness expressed by some of the family members.
Cascarano said he wasn't prepared to hear that outpouring of compassion, having heard his client vilified in the past.
"She's not the angel of death," he said.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.