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Four Woodbury teens charged with drug-related murder

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput was joined by Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague on Wednesday at a news conference in Stillwater, where prosecutors and law enforcement officials discussed details in the case of a drug-related death. (Staff photo by Mike Longaecker)

Washington County prosecutors said they took direct aim at the food chain of synthetic drug dealers when they filed murder charges Wednesday against five teenagers – four of whom are from Woodbury – following a student’s January overdose death.

The death of Woodbury High School student Tara Fitzgerald prompted charges against three of her classmates, along with two other teens in a case that prosecutors admitted was meant to send a message.

“We’re sending that message that the suppliers are going to be held fully to account,” Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said at a Wednesday news conference in Stillwater.

Three Woodbury High School students were among those charged with third-degree murder: Brian Phillip Norlander, 17, Alistair Curtis Berg, 17, and Sydney Claire Johnson, 17. All three were also charged with second-degree drug possession. The identities of juveniles older than 16 are public if they are charged with felonies in Minnesota.

Two adults, Woodbury resident Cole Alexander Matenaer, 19, and Alexander Lee Claussen, 19, St. Cloud, were charged with third-degree murder.

Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague said the announcement of charges usually brings a sense of satisfaction, but “we’re not feeling any of that right now.”

Washington County Sheriff William Hutton agreed.

“This is a huge tragedy for all,” he said.

The five teens are accused of playing different roles in the sale of a synthetic drug known chemically as 25i-NOBMe as it trickled down into Fitzgerald’s hands before she ingested it and died on Jan. 11.

According to a criminal complaint, the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the 17-year-old died as a result of complications of toxicity from the drug.

Assistant Washington County Attorney Imran Ali said prosecutors promised Fitzgerald’s family that they would seek “justice for Tara.”

“This is just the first day,” Ali told reporters.

Matenaer was arraigned Wednesday morning in Washington County District Court, where he was held on either a $100,000 unconditional bond or a $10,000 with conditions including no contact with co-defendants.

The three juveniles were arraigned on charges Wednesday and released from custody.

Claussen was arrested Wednesday morning in Duluth. Assistant Washington County Attorney Fred Fink expected Claussen to be arraigned on Thursday.

Links abounded

According to criminal complaints and juvenile petitions:

Police were called to the Commonwealth Avenue residence at 9:10 a.m. for a report of a girl who was not breathing and unresponsive after experimenting with “a substance similar to LSD.”

She was pronounced dead at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

A girl who was with Fitzgerald, identified in court filings as A.R.H., told investigators that they had taken a substance they thought was LSD that they bought from a WHS student named Brian.

Police determined that person to be Norlander and arrested him. According to the complaint, Norlander admitted to possessing more of the drug, which was later found in his vehicle.

That substance was turned over to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, where it was determined to be 25i-NBOMe.

Norlander told police he bought the drugs in school from Berg, his classmate at WHS. Berg told police he bought three tabs of the drug from Johnson, who also attends WHS, before selling it to Norlander for $30, according to the complaint.

Johnson said she sold Berg the drugs for $30 after buying them from someone named Cole.

“When asked if she felt responsible for (Fitzgerald’s) death, defendant Johnson stated yes because she is connected to the people who gave it to her,” the complaint states.

Johnson told police she had been buying the purported LSD from “Cole,” who had sheets’ worth of the drug.

That led police to Matenaer, who was stopped in traffic and allegedly found in possession with 34 dosages of a drug that later tested positive as 25i-NBOMe, according to the complaint. He told police he had sold doses at $10 apiece to Johnson, who attended WHS with his girlfriend.

The complaint describes how, after being jailed in Stillwater, Matenaer allegedly told his girlfriend “it’s my fault” during a recorded jailhouse phone call.

A search of data in the phones belonging to Matenaer and his girlfriend allegedly included reference to Fitzgerald’s death and “numerous communications” about drug deals.

Among the data collected was a contact listed as “Alex.” Most text message exchanges with “Alex” had been deleted, but investigators learned those messages involved talk of LSD.

Investigators tracked that phone number to a phone registered to a Sauk Centre, Minn., landscaping company that Claussen was using.

Police learned Claussen had been arrested in January 2014 in Nebraska for marijuana possession.

Investigators arrested Claussen after setting up a controlled purchase of LSD using a confidential informant. That laid the groundwork for police to execute a search warrant at Claussen’s residence, where they found 305 doses that later tested positive for 25i-NBOMe.

Deep concerns

Law enforcement and justice officials called the growing use of synthetic drugs a scourge that continues to rise.

Hutton called the situation an “epidemic” adding that there were six drug-related deaths in the first quarter of 2014.

“The question needs to be asked: When is enough enough,” he said, later adding “People have to stand up and say ‘we’re done with this.’”

Orput suggested Fitzgerald’s death and the surrounding drug activity are not isolated events in the area.

“I hope it’s an anomaly,” he said, “but I’m afraid it’s not.”

Vague said investigators picked up on “a very casual attitude among young people that this is safe.”

However, he rejected the notion that the young people charged in the Fitzgerald case might not have seen the harm in their actions. He said those people allegedly made a choice to distribute dangerous drugs.

“You’re going to be held accountable,” Vague said.

The charges come just five days before WHS students graduate. Orput said the timing of the charges was coincidental and not meant to send a message with graduation festivities on the horizon.

Instead, he said the charges were the result of an extensive investigation that “took quite a bit of time.”

“We wanted to go all the way up the chain,” Orput said. “We want to be sure.”

Prosecutors noted that the case remains an open investigation, but did not elaborate.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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