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Tainted drugs on Fargo-Moorhead streets believed connected to overdose deaths

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Fargo Police Chief David Todd, right, and Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger, left, speak Sunday, March 13, 2016, at the Fargo Police Department Headquarters after a round of possibly tainted heroin overdoses was reported. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Rick Abbott2 / 2

FARGO – Three overdose deaths in one week, possibly related to dangerous fentanyl-laced heroin, have prompted a coordinated response from area law enforcement, with dire warnings to the public and a round of arrests of suspected suppliers.

In a news conference at noon on Sunday, police made pleas for public vigilance as an uptick of illicit opiate overdoses is being seen around the region, Fargo Police Chief David Todd said.

“What happens in any one of our cities, really happens to us as a community as a whole and we have to tackle this issue together,” Todd said.

Todd announced that arrests of four suspected heroin suppliers were made at a south Fargo hotel Sunday morning, suspects he believes are connected to at least one overdose death on Saturday morning.

He said there may be other people who received the same drugs in the area.

“It could be extremely dangerous,” Todd said of the tainted narcotics. “I don’t want to have any more deaths out there.”

The suspected heroin could be laced with fentanyl, he said, which can be 40-50 times more potent than pure heroin and can be absorbed through the skin in some cases.

Because toxicology tests can take weeks, police couldn’t say for certain what substances have been found to be mixed in with the heroin.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opiate used to treat severe pain, according to the National Institutes of Health, and, when mixed with street drugs in powder form, can amplify their potency and cause breathing problems, unconsciousness, coma or death.

Opiates can include heroin, opium, hydrocodone and other substances.

Twin Cities-linked suppliers arrested

Todd said a narcotics unit had been working for at least a day straight to investigate the recent overdoses. During the course of that investigation, police got word of possible heroin suppliers renting a room at a south Fargo hotel.

Three men were arrested in the parking lot of the Residence Inn at 4335 23rd Ave. S. in Fargo around 6:30 a.m. Sunday. A search warrant was executed on a hotel room, where a woman was arrested and about a half ounce of suspected heroin and a small amount of marijuana were seized.

A small child who was also inside the room was taken into protective custody, Todd said.

Arrested were:

  • Jerrell Washington, 24: Accused of heroin possession with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and child neglect and abuse.

  • Marcel Washington, 25: Accused of giving false information to law enforcement, marijuana possession, drug paraphernalia and an outstanding warrant.

  • Reginald Washington, 24: Accused of heroin possession with intent to distribute, giving false information to law enforcement and possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

  • Heather Rouzier, 30: Accused of heroin possession with intent to distribute and child neglect and abuse.

At least two of those arrested have ties to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, said Fargo Police Sgt. Shannon Ruziska, the lieutenant in charge of narcotics investigation for the department.

Ruziska said police believe “a lot” of the opiates coming into the Fargo-Moorhead area are “channeling through” the Twin Cities before they get here. He said police previously hadn’t found heroin with an additive locally.

Overdoses leave several dead

The arrests come after an alarming surge in overdose deaths in Fargo in just the past week. Police said investigators are still working to determine if the cases are related.

According to police, the following overdose cases left three people dead and two injured:

  • March 6: John Weed, 37, died from a suspected opioid overdose in Fargo.

  • March 6: Tyson Chaney, 24, died from an opiate overdose in Fargo.

  • March 8: Suspected non-fatal opiate overdose in Dilworth.

  • March 9: Suspected non-fatal opiate overdose in Fargo.

  • March 12: Lucas Anderson, 26, died from an opiate overdose in Fargo.

“There’s no such thing as good heroin, it’s all bad. There’s no such thing as a good batch, it’s all bad stuff. Heroin can be extremely deadly, but if it has something in it … to make it even stronger, it can be extremely deadly,” Todd said.

Anderson, who died early Saturday, was remembered by his family as a talented musician, a pianist and member of jazz and other musical groups in the area. His brother, Michael Anderson, posted about the loss in a public Facebook note Saturday night.

“(Lucas) will be so missed for his hilarious sense of humor, his amazing way with those piano keys and his love for his friends,” Anderson wrote.

An obituary for Tyson Chaney from Boulger Funeral Home said the man was a Fargo native with a passion for cooking. He attended Fargo South High School and worked at Porter Creek Hardwood Grill.

An obituary submitted to The Forum for John Weed said he was a “kind-hearted, gentle man” who loved hockey, and didn’t mind sharing his skills with kids at the Clara Barton school ice rink.

For friends and family members of those who use illegal drugs like opiates, Todd said they should watch their loved ones for breathing difficulties, incoherence or unconsciousness, signs that emergency medical treatment is needed.

“If you see what you suspect is heroin or an opiate derivative, do not touch it. Call us to handle it,” Todd said.

Two Fargo legislators attended the police news conference Sunday. Rep. Josh Boschee and Sen. Tim Flakoll, who both represent a district that covers northeast Fargo, wanted to hear first-hand of the developments.

“Seeing the increase in crime in our neighborhood had me concerned, so I wanted to be more educated,” Boschee said.

“There’s no silver bullet to fix this. It takes one mistake to cause the problem and it could take the rest of one’s life to try to keep away from it,” Flakoll said.

Growing regional problem

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said his department had also dealt with recent overdoses, two of which were non-fatal. The victims were saved by Narcan, a nasal spray for the emergency treatment of opioid overdoses.

Some police departments around the country have begun to carry the drug. Locally, paramedics with F-M Ambulance carry the drug, but police do not.

Asked why officers don’t, police cited concerns with carrying it in their patrol vehicles and that cold weather can interfere with Narcan’s efficacy.

Ebinger said his department is working backward to try to determine the source of the drugs and see if there is a tie-in to the Fargo cases.

Last year in Grand Forks, two people fatally overdosed on fentanyl citrate, a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Multiple arrests were made in those cases, including an Oregon man who admitted his role in selling the drug.

Todd said he had been in contact with police in Grand Forks “at length” about their experience in dealing with fentanyl.

Multiple overdoses, including two deaths, were reported in Bemidji, Minn., and Williston, N.D., in January and February.

In a suspected overdose case at the end of February, Shawn Randall Hansen, 42, was found dead in a Moorhead motel room after being discharged from the state-funded residential treatment program Sharehouse in Fargo. Police have not said if there is any link between Hansen’s overdose, or previous cases around the region, and the possibly laced heroin.

Ebinger made a plea for those in the grips of drug use and addiction to seek help, even if they might be apprehensive in dealing with police.

“We don’t have a lot of credibility with people who have an addiction, they don’t want to listen to the police and they don’t want to talk to the police,” Ebinger said. “If you’re going to get out of drug use and try to deal with your addiction, now is a good time to do it.”

Ebinger said Todd called him Saturday and said “we need to make the public aware of this as quickly as possible.”

West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan said he wasn’t aware of any recent overdoses in his city related to those in Fargo, but said a fatal overdose happened in a West Fargo motel in 2015.

Reitan, citing information from a “local emergency room,” said that since October 2015 and until just recently, there were dozens of reported overdoses for various substances, including 11 heroin overdoses that were not fatal.

“We need to make sure that the community steps up” and reports the activity, either overdoses or drug activity, to their local law enforcement agencies, he said.

Ebinger said services of drug rehabilitation and mental health care are lacking.

“Regionally we are seriously under-prepared for the kind of rehab needs that we’ve got in this area,” Ebinger said. “The use of methamphetamine and opioids in this region has really spiked and we’ve got a real problem on our hands.”

Anyone with information about the incidents or opiate distribution in the area can call the Fargo Police tip line at (701) 241-5777 or their local law enforcement agency.

Joining Chief Todd, Ruziska, Reitan and Chief Ebinger at the news conference were Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist, Cass County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Rick Majerus, and Moorhead Police Lt. Tory Jacobson.

Rick Abbott

Rick Abbott, a native of Grand Forks, N.D., is a multimedia reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He graduated with a degree in Mass Communications with an emphasis in Photojournalism from Minnesota State University Moorhead. Rick previously worked at WDAZ-TV in Grand Forks as production director and later web producer.

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