Public's help sought to stem tide of Minnesota heroin deaths and hospitalizations
A wave of heroin overdose deaths and hospitalizations across northern Minnesota prompted an urgent plea from authorities Wednesday for the public's help in identifying dealers and users in an effort to prevent further tragedies.
Seven people have died and more than a dozen have been hospitalized in the past few weeks after ingesting heroin that in many cases was made even deadlier by the presence of added narcotics such as morphine and fentanyl, authorities said at Wednesday's news conference in Bemidji, Minn.
"We're here today because people are dying, and we need your help to try and stop it," said BCA special agent in charge Sue Burggraf.
Just in northern Minnesota, heroin overdoses have been reported so far this year in Hibbing, Virginia, Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, Cass Lake, Dillworth, Marble, Beltrami County and Mille Lacs County.
Heroin's spread in Minnesota has affected people of all ages and from all economic backgrounds, Brian Marquart, statewide drug and gang coordinator at the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) said at the news conference.
"It's not confined to any major metropolitan area," he said.
The number of Minnesotans seeking treatment for heroin addiction has steadily risen since 2007, from 1,850 that year to 5,142 in 2013, according to statistics from the state Department of Human Services. Heroin addiction was spread broadly across gender, race and age groups.
Heroin seizures statewide are up 125 percent since 2011, according to the DPS.
In 2015, 18 pounds of heroin, or enough for about 82,000 doses, were seized in Minnesota, officials said
Nationwide, rural areas have seen a higher rate of heroin overdose deaths than urban areas for the past 10 years, according to federal statistics. In Minnesota, some of the highest rates of people seeking treatment for opioid addiction have been in St. Louis and Carlton counties; Cass and Mahnomen counties in north central Minnesota, and Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota.
Speaking at Wednesday's news conference, Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp asked that anyone with information call (218) 333-9111 and ask for the drug task force.
"We need tips on dealers," he said.
Some dealers responsible for the latest wave of overdose deaths have been identified, he added.
On Monday, four people arrested Sunday in Fargo, N.D., were charged with possession of heroin in connection with an outbreak of drug overdoses in Fargo and Moorhead, including a death on Saturday.
Jerrell Washington, 24, and Reginald Washington, 24, of Fargo, and Heather Michelle Rouzier, 30, of Columbia Heights, were charged with possession of heroin with intent to deliver or manufacture. Marcel Washington, 25, of Fargo, was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of marijuana and giving false information to law enforcement.
Some of the suspects have ties to the Twin Cities, authorities said.
Burggraf, of the BCA, said overdose deaths often are now being treated as homicide investigations.
"When we find those drug dealers, we intend to charge them with third-degree murder," she said.
Mower County charges
In southern Minnesota's Mower County, a heroin death resulted in such charges this week. Ryan A. Anderson, 23, of Austin, was charged with third-degree murder in the December death of Tyler Burkey, 23.
Police called to Burkey's Austin home found his lifeless body straddling the bathroom and the hall, with a hypodermic needle lying nearby. An autopsy determined he died from a heroin overdose; it is not known if the heroin he ingested was laced with other substances.
Text messages between Anderson and Burkey revealed they had arranged a heroin transaction.
Anderson was arrested on March 3 at his grandmother's home in the 1800 block of 3rd Avenue NE., where he also lived and where she has been caring for small children for more than 30 years.
Children were being cared for in the home at the time of the arrest, authorities said.
Help for users
There was one shred of good news shared Wednesday. Some overdose victims have been saved by an injection of Narcan, an antidote increasingly carried by police officers.
Collin Brunelle, an investigator for the Red Lake Police Department, said Narcan has been used 19 times this year on the reservation.
"We haven't had a death in a year from a heroin overdose," he said.
James Madigan, a community liaison for Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, said half of the people in that program for heroin treatment started their addiction with prescription pain medications.
The pain pills eventually become too hard to find, and they're expensive, so users turn to heroin, he said.
Heroin users sometimes can be spotted because they have dark circles under their eyes, appear pale and generally unhealthy, and may wear long sleeves, even in hot weather, to hide needle marks, Madigan said.
Staff writers Karen Zamora and Paul Walsh also contributed to this report.