Carlton County police, courts fight continual, changing battle on drugs
After the body of a missing Floodwood woman was unearthed near a house on Cloquet’s Reservation Road in October 2012, the drug dealer who killed her said he hit her in the head with a hammer, then strangled her.
Because he was angry and snapped when he found some of his drugs were missing. After he killed her, Michael Siewert took her car and traded it for 2 ounces of methamphetamine.
The deaths of two Carlton County employees in an accident that same month were caused when a Cloquet woman — driving home from Brainerd after picking up a methadone prescription — crossed the center line.
That driver, Vanessa Brigan, later admitted to injecting methadone (not a prescribed use) and being high when she caused the accident.
When Joshua David Martineau shot a man and woman execution-style in the back of their heads in the couple’s Cromwell home, he later told the court he killed them because the man refused to turn over money and marijuana to him and because the woman could identify him.
A look at many of the serious crimes in Carlton County in recent years will not reveal any grand conspiracy, but it does offer at least one thing in common: misuse of drugs or alcohol played a role in most.
“I would imagine the majority of homicides over the past 10 years have some kind of drug connection,” said Cloquet Police Detective Darrin Berg.
Of course, not every crime committed by someone addicted to drugs is a murder or vehicular homicide. Other crimes and problems often associated with drug use include burglaries and thefts, copper thefts, assaults, medical emergencies, neighborhood problems and drug waste.
“We’ve had calls where someone just dumped a bunch of dirty needles on the ground,” recently retired Police Chief Wade Lamirande said in an interview last month. “Oftentimes car break-ins, garage break-ins and theft in general are committed by people who are not employed but still needing money to purchase drugs. You get desperate people, often not thinking straight.”
It is a well-known fact in law enforcement circles that the Cloquet area is a popular stop for drug dealers. Traveling north from the Twin Cities on Interstate 35, Cloquet is where some dealers turn to take Highway 33 to the Iron Range while others continue farther north to Duluth or even Canada. Everyone from the Minnesota State Patrol to the Carlton County Sheriff’s Department to the Cloquet Police Department is aware that drug traffickers travel both the interstate and the highway. The authorities make their fair share of arrests.
“We get more drug cases in Carlton County per capita than anywhere else in the state except the Twin Cities,” Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler said in an interview last month, pointing to a 10-inch stack of file folders on his desk, indicating nearly all of them are drug cases from that day alone. “Our numbers are frequently similar to [the more highly populated] south St. Louis County.”
Interim Cloquet Police Chief Terry Hill expressed surprise at the statistic, but Hill took a positive view of the high numbers.
“What’s that tell you?” he asked. “We’re proactive. That means our folks are working. And they’re working hand-in-hand with other agencies in Carlton County. We work hard — together — to combat crime in Carlton County.”
Despite the collaborative efforts of different law enforcement agencies and special drug task forces as well as legislative efforts to curb drug abuse, it seems every time one drug loses ground, another takes its place.
“When I first started [as a detective 13 years ago], we were chasing smaller amounts,” Detective Berg explained. “Methamphetamine was just becoming popular. They called it ‘fluff’ then. It was basically made in bathtubs with various chemicals. Some was yellow, pink, red … it depended on what chemicals were used.”
Because the main ingredients for meth were readily available — many cold medicines contain a key ingredient, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine — in stores and pharmacies, Pertler said they were “stolen and shoplifted by the hordes.”
“The [cold medicines] were very easy to conceal,” Pertler said. “There were people whose sole job was to go to store after store and bring it back to the meth lab.”
About 10 years ago, Berg said, law enforcement officers in the region started seeing a different kind of meth. Instead of the multicolored “fluff,” this looked more like shards of glass.
“It was more pure, more of a Mexican drug lab substance,” he said. “We’re talking in the mid-90th percentile pure … and that’s what we’re still seeing today.”
State legislation that made it more difficult for people to get cold medicine off the shelf did affect the “mom and pop” meth makers, but Berg doesn’t think it did much to slow down meth users.
Rather, it just opened the door for the Mexican cartels to step into the vacuum and start supplying meth.
“Meth is purer and more accessible now,” Berg said. “There’s no sense in people making it. They could buy it cheaper [than they can make it].”
In the mid-2000s came “the pill epidemic,” Berg called it, rattling off now-familiar names like OxyContin and Fentanyl.
They were prescription pills, in the opiate class. Legal, when used correctly. Some people became addicted after the drugs were prescribed to them for pain, others abused them from the start.
“There’s always that same population with issues of abuse and addiction, but we were seeing a lot of new people come in and get hooked and become part of our [criminal justice] system,” Berg said. “New names and new faces, in addition to the familiar ones.”
Unlike the effects from meth, people abusing opiates were overdosing and dying, Berg said.
However, as medical professionals and others took note of the epidemic, doctors began prescribing them less and monitoring patients more closely. Pharmaceutical companies changed the makeup of some drugs, such as OxyContin, so users couldn’t melt and inject or crush and snort the drug for a quick high anymore. Also the price for pills went up so much that affordability became a problem. Pills that had been $50 or $60 each were suddenly selling for $100 for one 80-milligram pill, Berg said.
“With doctors being more vigilant, they weren’t giving out so much and it kind of tapered off,” Berg said. “We saw a decrease in the pills, but we saw more people on methadone.”
Prescribed by doctors as a way to wean people off opiates like OxyContin or heroin, methadone is a controversial treatment choice because it can also be abused and is addictive in its own right.
At the same time, heroin was on the rise in Carlton County.
“When I first saw police reports involving a drug case for heroin, I was surprised: ‘What, heroin in Carlton County?’ I thought it was an aberration,” Pertler said. “But heroin trafficking and use went from almost non-existent to a real problem in a dramatic, quick fashion.”
According to the Carlton County Attorney’s office, that office prosecuted one heroin case in 2009. In 2011, there were 9. In 2012, there were 25 heroin cases in Carlton County, out of a total of 67 in the entire 6th Judicial District (which also includes the Iron Range, Duluth and Two Harbors).
And there were more overdoses. Heroin is easy to overdose on because the purity is not consistent. A person can take a certain dose one time and be fine. The next time, if the heroin is purer, they might die from the same dose.
A balancing act
According to County Coronor Dr. Ricard Puumala, there have been three accidental drug overdose deaths so far this year.
There would be more, if not for a much cheaper drug called Narcan, or naloxone (generic name).
Cloquet Area Fire District paramedic Jeremy Hutchison explained that Narcan blocks the receptor sites on nerve cells that receive narcotics. In medical terms, it is a “pure opioid antagonist.”
“Basically someone can go from barely breathing to being able to walk around, follow commands and talk to us,” Hutchison said, adding that the person is also no longer high.
In 2009, CAFD responded to 26 drug overdose calls and administered Narcan 14 times. In 2013, they responded to 33 overdose calls and administered Narcan 24 times. In the first three months of this year, they responded to seven overdose calls and gave Narcan four times.
It’s a delicate balance, however. Give a person too much Narcan, CAFD’s Brian Roth said, and you can throw them into withdrawal.
“Not only are they not high, they now feel like they have a really terrible case of the flu,” Roth said, explaining that sometimes people who are given Narcan wake up combative.
So the paramedic’s job is to “titrate,” or give the overdose victim just enough to bring them around. Then they need to transport them to the hospital, so they can be further evaluated and watched by medical professionals, because the effects of the Narcan don’t last unless you give the patient more.
“Narcan is weaker than narcotics,” explained CAFD paramedic Pete Erickson. “Eventually it will wear off.”
So the paramedics who just saved a person’s life could be threatened, now that the person is awake, but often in a very different atmosphere than he or she remembers.
It’s a problem at local hospitals, too.
“We get calls to go to the ER,” Lamirande said. “Often officers are waiting a long time, up to four hours, with combative patients.”
It’s a balancing act for police and other law enforcement agencies. With limited resources, they must decide how much time and manpower to dedicate to the local war on drugs.
“Once people figure out routes and a market, it’s very difficult to stop that once it’s established,” Lamirande said. “It’s ongoing. Even marijuana, if we’re not vigilant, just creates an opportunity for that culture to grab hold and take root.
“It’s sad to know that if you wanted to find heroin or other drugs, it’s usually not difficult to do.”
Editor’s note: It’s not only the addicts who suffer. It’s family members, children and the community. On Wednesday, a more personal approach to the drug problem, and the collateral damage caused by addiction.