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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published June 20 2012

Park Rapids boy dies in ‘bad batch’ of drugs case

GRAND FORKS – Federal, state and local law enforcement officials held an emergency meeting Tuesday in Grand Forks over the recent proliferation of dangerous synthetic drugs blamed in the deaths of two teenage males in the past week.

It’s a true emergency, said North Dakota’s U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon, who had his office put out a news release late Tuesday afternoon.

“We are concerned that these two deaths may be linked to these synthetic drugs,” he said, adding that there is much about the ongoing investigation he can’t say yet. “There is a bad batch of this stuff in Grand Forks and it cost two young people their lives. We want to make sure the word gets out to young people, so nobody else takes this stuff. The risk is way too high.”

The meeting brought together police, sheriff’s departments, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, prosecutors, representatives from Purdon’s office, UND police and U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents.

Two victims

Parents and others need to be extra vigilant about drugs circulating right now, right here, Purdon said.

The 17-year-old boy who was hospitalized last Wednesday, apparently after overdosing on synthetic hallucinogens in East Grand Forks, Minn., died over the weekend, said East Grand Forks police Lt. Rod Hajicek on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday, authorities identified the victim is identified as Elijah Stai, of Park Rapids, Minn. Police say it appears Stai overdosed on synthetic hallucinogens. He died in a Grand Forks hospital last weekend.

The hallucinogen, in the form of a white powder, had been mixed with melted chocolate, cooled and eaten like candy, he said.

“I talked to his mother late today,” he said. “She is very concerned that no one else gets hurt by this stuff.”

The other teen, Christian Bjerk, 18, of Grand Forks, was apparently a victim of a similar hallucinogen, police say. His body was found on a lawn in the city’s north side early June 11.

Wesley Sweeney, 19, Manvel, N.D., one of Bjerk’s friends who was with him about the time he died, was arrested last week on an unrelated warrant.

In a Facebook conversation between Bjerk’s brother and Sweeney, angry words and charges have been posted.

Bjerk’s brother has accused Sweeney of killing his brother by supplying unsafe drugs. He wrote that Bjerk told him Sweeney “had two sheets of acid last week but it wasn’t (expletive) acid, it was bath salts.”

Bjerk had told him he would never try the “bath salts,” synthetic drugs known for meth-like or LSD-like effects, the brother wrote.

Unpredictable

“That’s the problem right there,” said Lt. Hajicek. “You don’t have any idea what you are taking.”

The peculiar danger of these new drugs is that they are so new, little is known about their effect or potency, Hajicek said. “Not that any illegal drugs are safe, but these synthetic drugs we are seeing seem to be even more dangerous,” he said.

The synthetic pot – known as K2 and “spice” – as well as some forms of “bath salts” have been around for a couple years

More recently, new forms of synthetic hallucinogens, or “mushrooms,” also called synthetic psychedelics, have been showing up, according to Purdon, Hajicek and others.

In the past month, there have been “multiple overdoses” involving such drugs in Grand Forks and Polk counties, Purdon said.

The psychedelics have been found in the form of multi-colored blotter paper and as white powder, and are often referred to as “acid,” although it’s not LSD, according to Purdon.

Legal patchwork

It appears the overdoses and deaths and other incidents are linked to the same drug, even the same batch, Purdon and Hajicek said.

Two arrests have been made, one in Grand Forks and one in East Grand Forks, linked to the recent hallucinogenic overdoses, Hajicek said late Tuesday.

But he could offer no details yet.

“We will have more on that tomorrow,” he said.

It’s difficult for law enforcement because the chemicals change, and the laws aren’t always keeping up, said Grand Forks County State’s Attorney Peter Welte, who attended the emergency meeting Tuesday in Grand Forks and kept Purdon, who was out of state, apprised.

Federal laws differ from state laws, and Minnesota law, for example, prohibits the sale of, say, “spice,” which is legally sold across the Red River in Grand Forks, Welte said.

Packages sold legally from one record store in Grand Forks under the brand name “Pure Evil” are called “potpourri” and labeled “not for human consumption,” said police Sgt. Brett Johnson.

But it looks like pot and gives a pot-like high when smoked or otherwise ingested, he said, displaying one package seized some time ago in a closed investigation.

Hard to tell

A handful of cases since April 1 in Grand Forks have involved such synthetic drugs, Sgt. Johnson said. But they are tough to investigate because of the unorthodox nature of the new drugs.

One case of a man found dancing around “and acting goofy” in the middle of DeMers Avenue in late May, west of South Washington Street, appeared to include some sort of hallucinogen, he said.

But no physical or forensic evidence could be garnered in the case, so the man was charged simply with disorderly conduct, he said.

In other cases, people report later to police that they think they were the victims of such drugs, unaware at the time of what was going on, thwarting any investigation, he said.

The fact that some of the drugs are still sold legally in North Dakota also makes investigations complicated.

“We are hoping we can get laws or ordinances changes, which obviously is being worked on,” he said.


Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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