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OUR VIEW: TV report draws attention to synthetic drug trend

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Opportunistic. Gossipy. Sensational. National TV news can be described by various less-than-favorable adjectives, a handful of them well deserved.

But one newsmagazine got it right Sunday night when it produced a Woodbury-centric episode about the national trend in youthful synthetic drug use.

Kate Snow’s “One Small Dose” focused on Tom and Mai Fitzgerald’s worst nightmare — the day their daughter, Tara, died in their home after taking a drug she thought was LSD.

Several friends of hers, who graduated from Woodbury High School after her death, were interviewed together in the TV episode as Snow told a story parents need to know and facts we all need to accept. Then, Dateline gave law enforcement and the Fitzgeralds a platform from which to ask for change.

Kids tend to be aware of parties involving the drinking of alcohol and the smoking of marijuana. In Woodbury, people knew that trying acid was on Tara’s bucket list, one student said. Tara told other students LSD was safe and she wasn’t going to be talked out of trying it. Those close to Tara figured the smart, fun 17-year-old had done her homework, that she knew overdoses on LSD are very rare and pure acid is almost always less than lethal. The thrill was also cheap — $10 a tab.

One Friday night in 2014, Tara invited a friend over for a sleepover, with the purpose of trying drugs.

Since Tara’s parents, Tom and Mai, were planning to attend their younger daughter’s early-morning basketball game, Tara and her friend intended their slumber party would end with sleeping in and recovery from an acid trip. The parents thought the girls were doing what they usually did — watching scary movies, eating junk food, enjoying some freedom from parents in the safety of the Fitzgerald home.

Things went wrong.

On Jan. 11, 2014, the mother of Tara’s friend called Tom and Mai from the Fitzgerald house, saying that she thought Tara had taken some kind of drug. Tom told her to call 911.

A female’s harrowing words recorded in the 911 call were broadcast on Sunday: “I don’t feel a pulse.”

911 dispatcher: “Try to shake and shout ‘Are you OK?’”

Caller: “Nothing.”

When Tara’s parents arrived to a street full of emergency vehicles, CPR was being conducted on their daughter. With Mai inconsolable, Tom went to the hospital alone.

“Please, Tara, come back,” he told his daughter in the emergency room.

Tom recalled, during an interview with Dateline, when efforts to revive Tara ceased: “They just told me it wasn’t going to happen. And they just stopped.”

At home, Mai had called Tara’s friends and police began investigations.

Immediately, police conducted phone forensics. That day, they began tracking the source of the drugs and they were pondering the questions:

- What happened?

- Is there more out there?

- If both girls took the drug, why did one girl die and the other live?

Investigators know from the girls’ phones that taking LSD had been a planned event. There were pictures of Tara and her friend as they were about to ingest tabs of acid on their tongues. Dateline aired a short video clip of a giggly Tara and then contrasted it with a photo of her unresponsive on the basement floor.

Police constructed a timeline of events from an interview with Tara’s friend.

A second friend came over to console Tara, then left because not only was the car due back but also because the situation was “too freaky,” according to a text message.

They didn’t call 911 or wake Tara’s parents because they didn’t want to get into trouble.

Police suspected early on in the investigation that the drug was not genuine LSD, rather a new class of synthetic drugs — narcotics made out of an unpredictable, unscientific mixture of chemicals.

What happened in Woodbury is instructive on a national level.

Drug dealers are illegally buying chemicals online, mostly from China a miniscule prices, making inconsistent batches of synthetic drugs, and marketing them to our kids, even in Woodbury. It’s difficult to keep dangerous substances from being purchased online and shipped to the U.S. with the click of a computer mouse, because as soon as we ban one substance, the formula is changed to a chemical that is not banned.

According to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials, dealers have no idea of the dosage on each tab. All they care about is the bottom line: a $1,500 investment could yield $250,000 in profits.

Kids who take synthetic drugs are gambling with their lives, DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg told Dateline.

Supported by clips from taped interviews in Woodbury police investigations, drug dealers tend to know what they are selling, but their clients often do not.

“They’re killing our kids,” County Attorney Pete Orput told Dateline, “and we need to do something about it.”

In Tara’s case, it wasn’t long before two men and three Woodbury High School students were charged with third-degree murder. After the Woodbury girl’s death, the dealer still possessed 300 doses of 25i-NBOMe (aka Smiles) ready for sale.

The men pleaded guilty, and the juveniles plea bargained and received far lesser sentences, to the protest of Tom.

NBC was at the Washington County Government Center last month. Orput defended the decisions of the court as fair. Those profiting from the sale of a drug that killed Tara went to prison, and the young first-time offenders were punished.

“Religiously, I want to forgive everybody,” Tom said. “But let me tell you, as a parent, it’s harder.”

There are a lot of people who watched Dateline last weekend who need to talk to their kids about dabbling in drugs.

The point of the NBC’s report — simply do more — is valid and should be a useful lesson to parents. One small dose killed a local girl — a guitarist and diehard Oasis fan, an A honor roll student who loved to learn, a rare gem with a philosophical outlook and a sense of humor people appreciated. She loved skateboarding, tubing behind her family’s boat and drawing. Her death was unexpected.

25i was banned in the U.S. mere weeks before Tara died. Since then, China reacted to international pressure and banned the manufacture of chemicals in 25i. The DEA’s Operation Project Synergy has seized tens of thousands of pounds of imported chemicals, arrested hundreds, and saved some lives.

Police said a little less privacy would be appropriate for teenagers, if only to save their lives. Parents should go to extremes to protect their children. One Woodbury officer suggested sorting through kids’ stuff in their bedrooms and taking a look at phones. To police, the choice is between a potentially unhappy kid or one in a casket; they meant that in all grave seriousness.

The students involved in passing along drugs to Tara were honor roll students, as was Tara. They were viewed as good kids. They haven’t gone unpunished and they have to live with the guilt of what happened, but Tara made one mistake, and it cost her life.

“I never thought that she would’ve taken drugs in a million years,” Mai told Dateline.

“Without her, a piece of our soul is gone,” Tom said.

The Fitzgeralds deserve credit for welcoming interviews despite a nearly unimaginable situation, law enforcement and attorneys should be commended for keeping open lines of communication with NBC, and Dateline ought to be acknowledged for drawing attention to the issue in a way that could change minds and save lives.

We all need to talk to our kids about the dangers of drugs. But not only that, we need to follow through, taking and supporting preventive measures in our households, our neighborhoods, our state, and our nation.

The Fitzgeralds knew their daughter, they knew her friends, and for all their efforts to be good parents, Tom has said in the past, it wasn’t enough.