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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications, Published August 28 2012

Grand Forks man pleads guilty to conspiracy in synthetic drug case

GRAND FORKS - The ex-roommate of the alleged center of a drug-making operation that killed two teenagers pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Grand Forks to conspiracy in the case.

He’s the second man charged in what a federal prosecutor said is a larger conspiracy.

William Joseph Fox, 24, admitted Monday he distributed synthetic hallucinogens made by his roommate, Andrew Spofford, as well as pot and cocaine, under Spofford’s direction, from January 2011 until June 14 when police searched their home at 2200 4th Ave. N. in Grand Forks.

Both men have been behind bars since their arrest June 14 by Grand Forks law enforcement.

The federal felony charge carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $2 million fine, U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson told Fox. Erickson scheduled sentencing for Nov. 20 in Fargo.

However, Fox is expected to be sentenced to considerably less than the maximum, based on federal sentencing guidelines and the amount of drugs he admitted to distributing.

Under an agreement forged by Chris Myers, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, and Fox’s attorney, Patrick Rosenquist, Fox admitted distributing seven types of illegal drugs. They included synthetic hallucinogens in several “analog” chemical mixes marketed as “acid,” and ecstasy, Myers said, as well as actual marijuana and cocaine. In all, the illegal drugs amounted to the equivalent of 400 kilos of pot under the federal method of figuring such things.

“Because he took responsibility for his crime, he is hoping for a downward departure from the (sentencing) guidelines,” Rosenquist said of Fox.

Fox’s plea appears to be a ratcheting up of the federal investigation that began in June into the dramatic, deadly case.

Spofford was charged Aug. 7 in federal court in Fargo with a similar count of drug conspiracy.

He remains in federal custody awaiting his next court hearing. He waived his right to a bond hearing.

On Friday, Wesley Sweeney, 19, is slated to plead guilty to related federal drug charges in a Fargo court room, according to the court’s calendar.

Sweeney, of Manvel, N.D., has been in the Grand Forks County jail since June 27 on state district court charges of felony reckless endangerment. Grand Forks prosecutors allege on June 11 Sweeney provided drugs made by Spofford to two others, including Christian Bjerk, 18, who died an hour or so later in northwest Grand Forks.

Bjerk’s parents were in the federal court room Monday to hear Fox’s guilty plea.

Both Spofford and Fox first faced charges in state district court in Grand Forks related to a drug investigation that goes back at least to May, when Ronald Norling III was arrested north of Grand Forks.

Drugs and paraphernalia allegedly found with Norling included information that Spofford was cooking synthetic hallucinogens at 2200 N. Fourth Ave., according to affidavits by investigators in the state court charges.

During the June 14 search of his home, Spofford, 22, told investigators from the Grand Forks Narcotics Task Force he was a “hobby chemist,” and had ordered chemicals from Europe to make the hallucinogens found in his home, investigators allege.

Investigators say Spofford sold some of his powdered hallucinogen to Adam Budge, 18, of East Grand Forks, who provided it to Elijah Stai, 17, on June 13. Stai went into a coma within an hour and died June 15 in Altru Hospital.

At least five other young people were hospitalized with overdoses caused by ingesting the hallucinogens made by Spofford, according to investigators’ affidavits.

Investigators say Sweeney bought the hallucinogen blamed in Bjerk’s death from Budge, who earlier obtained it from Spofford. Budge told investigators he mixed the white powder with melted chocolate, froze it and gave it to Stai.

Fox faces two misdemeanor drug possession charges in Grand Forks court over the June 14 search. He also faces the possible revocation of probation from unrelated earlier assault charges.

It’s expected the state charges against Fox now will be dismissed, Myers told Judge Erickson Monday.

Similarly, Spofford’s state drug charges were dismissed earlier this month once federal prosecutors charged him.

Norling was charged May 23 in state court with felony possession of methamphetamine. But it’s possible his case will go federal, too. His arraignment in state court last month was canceled. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for next month.

Budge was charged in June with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Minnesota district court in Crookston in the death of Stai. He also faces two felony drug charges. But it’s expected his case soon will become federal, too: a pre-trial conference slated for Monday didn’t happen and he remains in jail in Crookston.

Prosecutor Myers said he cannot comment on possible future charges.

But Monday in federal court, Myers told Judge Erickson the alleged crimes involve more than only Spofford and Fox distributing drugs in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks as well as in Richland County in southeast North Dakota.

“Of course, there is much more to the overall conspiracy.”

Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald.