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Synthetic drug maker sentenced to 17 years

GRAND FORKS — Andrew Spofford, the Grand Forks man who told investigators he was the “hobby chemist” who ordered by mail, then mixed the synthetic hallucinogens blamed for killing two teens in June 2012, has been sentenced to 17 1/2 years in federal prison.

It’s the longest sentence of 12 handed out so far by U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson in the case “Operation Stolen Youth,” which has alleged international connections. Two other men have pleaded guilty and the 15th person charged likely will strike a deal, too, before his trial slated for March 18.

Chris Myers, the first assistant U.S. attorney for North Dakota who is prosecuting the case, said drugs Spofford made caused the deaths of Christian Bjerk, 18, on June 11, 2012, and Elijah Stai, 17, of Park Rapids, Minn., who ingested them June 13, 2012 in East Grand Forks, Minn.

The deaths sparked a rapid response from local, state and federal officials and the case quickly became a federal one.

Myers says Spofford ordered chemicals from Europe and Asia, largely through Charles Carlton of Houston, and used them to make synthetic hallucinogens in his Grand Forks home.

He pleaded guilty in October 2012 to five counts of conspiracy to distribute illegal synthetic hallucinogens.

Spofford, 23, appeared Monday in federal court in Fargo, apologizing and taking responsibility for his role in the deaths of the two teens, Myers said.

Parents present

It was Spofford’s making and marketing of the hallucinogens that led to the deaths of Bjerk and Stai, as well as the hospitalizations of several minors, Myers said.

The drugs Spofford received from Carlton through a firm called Motion Resources were mostly in powder form and Spofford prepared it for retail trade in two basic ways, Myers said. The powder was rendered into liquid form and then poured, in individual “hits,” on “acid blotter sheets”, dozens of hits to a sheet, or the powder was mixed into melted chocolate.

Bjerk apparently ingested both forms while Stai consumed it in chocolate bar form, Myers said.

Spofford’s father and mother, David and Vicki Spofford, spoke in court Monday and David Spofford talked about it Tuesday.

“The point we wanted to make is we weren’t making any excuses for our son’s involvement and we didn’t condone it. But we just thought that to make him or any of the accused boys into monsters was an inaccurate representation.”

David Spofford said his heart goes out to the Bjerk and Stai families.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a son.”

He told the judge his son’s sentence seems too long “for a kid who is going to be 24 in May, … with no prior criminal history,” Spofford said. “He has shown sorrow in the case. I was just hoping he would get less than he did.”

But Debbie Bjerk, who with her husband, Keith Bjerk, has been at most of the court hearings in this case, said Spofford should do more time for the effect his drug dealing had on her son.

“People don’t seem to understand this guy was packaging this stuff up, putting it in chocolate and marketing it as a mushroom powder, even though he knew it was very dangerous,” Debbie Bjerk said Tuesday. “And these were teenagers and minors, subject to impulsive decisions.”

“I told the judge when you mix up poison and you give it to people you intend to do people harm,” Bjerk said. “And these synthetic drugs are nothing more than poison.”

Sentence guidelines

Federal guidelines called for Spofford to get 24.3 years to 30.4 years, with a mandatory minimum of 20 years, which was Myers’ recommendation. Spofford’s attorney asked for 10 years.

Federal judges can sentence defendants to less than mandatory minimums.

There is no parole in the federal prison system, Judge Erickson tells all defendants.

But credit for good behavior can total up to 54 days per year off a federal sentence, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Combined with credit he was given by Erickson for the 18 months he’s served in the Grand Forks County jail since his arrest, Spofford could be out in less than 14 years.

David Spofford said federal drug sentences seem too harsh.

“I just think they are ridiculously long,” he said. “These are all young boys. I don’t think they are insidious and evil, I think they were stupid. All the boys, at their various levels, got more time than they should have.

“Maybe if I was in the shoes of the Bjerk family, I would feel the same way they feel,” Spofford said. “I mean no disrespect to them. But they have got other kids and I’ve got other kids and nobody wants to see this happen again.”

In the courtroom Monday, Debbie Bjerk played a three-minute video of her son on parents’ night for the Red River High School football team his senior year just eight months before he died.

“Most people in that courtroom had never met my son, so I wanted them to see who my son was,” she said. “My only reason for getting this in the paper is to educate the public. I had two kids in high school and I had never heard of synthetic drugs.”

Spofford said his son “is holding up.”

“As he said in court, he goes to sleep and wakes up every day of his life with this. He feels horrible. He’s done a lot of growing up and maturing in these 18 months he’s been incarcerated. I’m proud of him for that.”

Bjerk said she wants to push for a state law that would offer immunity from possible drug crimes prosecution for anyone who calls 911 to save someone overdosing on drugs. In both her son’s case and Stai’s death, other people, including adults, didn’t call for help soon enough because they feared trouble from the law over drug use.

Further investigation

Nobody else has been charged, but Myers says the investigation continues.

John Polinsky, who worked with Carlton in the Houston area, is set to go to trial March 18, according to federal court documents. But he still could decide to plead guilty, rather than risk a federal trial.

Carlton is scheduled to plead guilty March 10 in Fargo.

Casey Rosen, who has pleaded guilty, is scheduled to be sentenced April 14.

“The law enforcement response in this particular case and in the overall investigation is exemplary and should be applauded,” Myers said Tuesday. “They were able to take two overdoses and successfully dismantle a large trafficking organization responsible for distributing an enormous amount of controlled and analogue controlled substances in the Red River Valley and elsewhere.”