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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications, Published September 04 2012

Four UND students plead not guilty to conspiracy charges linked to synthetic drug deaths

FARGO - Four University of North Dakota students pleaded not guilty this afternoon in federal court here to conspiracy charges in the wider-spreading synthetic drug case in which prosecutors say they distributed hallucinogens that caused two people to die and five more to be hospitalized.

Today, only hours after they were arrested or turned themselves in, Casey Rosen, Peter Hoistad, Allyson DeSantos and Steven Bucher all appeared with lawyers in federal court here to enter initial not guilty pleas. The count they are facing carries a maximum penalty of life in prison and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, as well as a fine of up to $1 million.

The grand jury indictment unsealed today also upped the drug distribution conspiracy against Andrew Spofford, 22, the Grand Forks man and former UND student who prosecutors say cooked forms of ecstasy and what he marketed as "acid."

Spofford now faces five new counts specifying that the drugs he allegedly made and sold led to the deaths of Christian Bjerk, 18, in Grand Forks, on June 11 and of Elijah Stai, 17, on June 15 in East Grand Forks.

Judge Magistrate Karen Klein set their trial for Nov. 6 before U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson in Fargo. Chris Myers, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, said he expects such a trial, if it happens, to last two to three weeks.

The four could still reach plea agreements with prosecutors, as did Spofford's roommate William Fox and Wesley Sweeney, who admitted providing Bjerk with the two hallucinogens which allegedly caused his death.

Bjerk's mother and brother attended the court hearing today, as did Hoistad's mother.

"It's just so sad," said Hoistad's mother, who said they lived in the Twin Cities area.

Klein ordered Rosen and Hoistad kept in federal custody until they decide if they want a bond hearing; she released DeSantos to a half-way house in Fargo where she will continue drug treatment, and released Bucher to the supervision of a court official.

Two more alleged members of the conspiracy, Budge and Ronald Norling III, are scheduled to appear in federal court here Wednesday to enter pleas to charges.

Spofford is scheduled to be arraigned on the five charges he faces on Wednesday.