2 more guilty pleas, 1 not -guilty plea in Grand Cities drug case that killed 2
Adam Budge of East Grand Forks appeared ready to break into sobs as he admitted in federal court here Wednesday that he stole a powdered hallucinogen from a friend, mixed it with melted chocolate, froze it and gave it to Elijah Stai on June 13.
Within an hour or two in Budge's home, Stai, 17, had quit breathing and was "brain dead," said Chris Myers, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting Budge and others in what he calls a wide-ranging drug conspiracy.
Stai, from Park Rapids, Minn., was declared dead June 15 in Altru Hospital in Grand Forks.
On Wednesday, Budge, 19, pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors to a charge of distributing dangerous synthetic drugs that led to deaths and serious bodily injury. It carries a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $1 million fine, as well as a mandatory minimum charge of 20 years behind bars. The plea deal may lead to a lesser sentence.
Budge is one of nine charged so far in a federal case focused on Andrew Spofford, 22, the Grand Forks man prosecutors say led a drug-making and distributing conspiracy.
Also Wednesday, Spofford pleaded not guilty in federal court in Fargo to a five-count indictment handed down last week by a federal grand jury. The charges implicate him in the overdose deaths of Stai and Christian Bjerk, 18, of Grand Forks, and the hospitalization of at least five others in June.
Myers said in the indictment's language that Spofford was "the leader, organizer, manager and supervisor in this conspiracy."
The new indictment replaces the federal complaint filed early last month initially alleging a lesser drug conspiracy charge against Spofford.
4 plea deals
The prosecutor has offered four of the nine -- Budge, Ronald Norling III, Spofford's roommate William Fox and Wesley Sweeney, 18, of Manvel, N.D. -- plea deals.
All four have now accepted the plea deals. Fox and Sweeney pleaded guilty last week.
Norling, 27, of Grand Forks, pleaded guilty on Wednesday in federal court in Fargo to a lesser conspiracy charge of distributing hallucinogens made by Spofford, as well as pot and cocaine from January 2011 until this June.
Norling's charge does not allege that his part in the conspiracy led to deaths or serious bodily injury. It carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson set Budge's and Norling's sentencing for Nov. 26.
Under the deal's terms, Budge could be sentenced to less than the mandatory minimum of 20 years, depending on any previous criminal history and other factors, after a pre-sentence investigation.
Four others charged in the case, all former UND students in their early 20s, made initial appearances Tuesday in federal court in Fargo. Although Casey Rosen, Peter Hoistad, Allyson Desantos and Steven Bucher entered initial pleas of not guilty, it's likely they, too, will seek plea deals.
Spofford's trial was scheduled for Nov. 16 in federal court in Fargo by Chief Magistrate Judge Karen Klein on Wednesday.
Myers told Klein he expected the trial to last two to three weeks.
Spofford's attorney, John Goff of Fargo, said after Spofford's arraignment that it was too early to comment on the case.
Spofford, who grew up in Fargo, nodded to his father before being led from the court room. His father met with Goff afterward.
The grand jury's indictment said Spofford conspired with others to distribute synthetic drugs leading to death and serious bodily injury, a similar charge to what six others face. But the grand jury also indicted Spofford for four additional counts alleging the hallucinogens he made led to the deaths of Bjerk and Stai, as well as the injury to C.J., the 15-year-old.
Those four counts carry maximum penalties of life in prison, with a mandatory minimum penalty of 20 years. A fine of up to $1 million also is possible.
A final, lesser charge of "causing the introduction into interstate commerce of a misbranded drug" alleges Spofford obtained Etizolam from outside the United States and distributed it.
Myers explained in the indictment the drug is used to ameliorate some effects of the hallucinogens Spofford is accused of making and selling.
The charges in this case reflect the new reality in synthetic drug crimes: Drug makers stay ahead of the law by concocting "analogues" that are chemically different from what state and federal laws have described as controlled substances, at times eluding the law.
Myers included the term "analogues" of several hallucinogens in the charges to cover chemical innovations.
He told Judge Erickson during Budge's plea hearing that some of the drugs made and sold by Spofford were "so new" his office had to find a new lab in Colorado to test the bodies of Bjerk and Stai for the presence of the drugs.
Toxicology tests already done in the autopsies have ruled out more typical illegal drugs such as pot, cocaine or methamphetamine, making it more likely their deaths were caused by the kind of synthetic drugs Spofford is accused of making and selling, Myers told Erickson.
As Budge watched Myers recite the facts of his case on Wednesday, his mouth was trembling, and he appeared in emotional distress. Several times he dabbed Kleenex to his eyes.
Myers said Budge started distributing pot and cocaine for Spofford about January 2011.
According to investigators' affidavits, Budge told them Spofford offered him $4,000 a month for the work. Budge also told them he saw about $20,000 in cash lying around Spofford's home.
Budge admitted Wednesday he soon began distributing the synthetic hallucinogens Spofford was cooking using chemicals Spofford ordered from Europe and elsewhere.
Budge also admitted breaking into Spofford's home and stealing packaged hallucinogens. Before he gave Stai the drugs, he sold two different hallucinogens to Sweeney. Sweeney then gave them to Bjerk and "C.J.," a 15-year-old boy, in the early hours of June 11 at a Grand Forks home.
Bjerk was found dead from the effects of the hallucinogens, Myers said. C.J. and Sweeney were hospitalized.
Budge's parents attended Wednesday's hearing, as did Bjerk's and Stai's.
Myers told Judge Erickson that Budge's father, Richard Budge, was at home in East Grand Forks on June 13 and aware Stai was having a "bad trip," but didn't immediately call for help even when he learned Stai was unconscious, then not breathing.
After the hearing, Budge's parents walked over to speak with Bjerk's parents and Stai's mother, who had been sitting together. The conversation soon led to heated words from Bjerk's father, Keith Bjerk, of Grand Forks, who told the Budges that what their son "gave my son killed him just as sure as if he handed him a gun."
U.S. marshals providing court room security stepped closer to separate the two couples and escorted the Budges out of the court room.
Myers said the case remains an open, ongoing investigation.
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