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Court drops murder charge in Bagley drug overdose case

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A prosecutor has dismissed a third-degree murder charge against a Bagley, Minn., man accused of giving morphine to an acquaintance who died of an overdose after a night of partying.

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Clearwater County Attorney Jeanine Brand said her decision to drop the charge against Brian Crabtree came down to a medical examiner's conclusion that morphine and alcohol, not just morphine, caused the death of Travis Boe.

An autopsy showed that Boe, who was 21 when he died, had a blood-alcohol level of .15 percent, nearly twice the legal limit to drive.

With the murder charge dismissed Monday, Crabtree pleaded guilty to a third-degree controlled substance crime of providing morphine to party-goers at a home in North LaPrairie Township, Minn., in December 2008.

Crabtree's attorney Blair Nelson and Brand said they plan to recommend that 23-year-old Crabtree serve a term of three years and nine months. Brand said Crabtree would also have to pay $12,000 for Boe's burial expenses. Crabtree, who's been in custody since September 2009, is set to be sentenced May 3.

Had Crabtree been convicted of third-degree murder, he could have faced a sentence of more than eight years, Brand said.

'Big holes'

Nelson said Crabtree brought one or two pills to the party -- a total of 200 milligrams -- that were split among five people. The pills were crushed and snorted, according to the criminal complaint that charged Crabtree with murder.

Nelson said a toxicologist for the defense determined the level of morphine in Boe's blood was about five times that of another partygoer who consumed roughly the same amount of Crabtree's morphine with Boe the night before he died. The discrepancy in the tests suggests Boe acquired more morphine elsewhere, Nelson said.

"The science really put some big holes in the state's case," Nelson said. "The forensics suggest there had to be some additional consumption."

Brand said there's no evidence supporting the notion that Boe got more morphine from another source. She said two people can consume the same amount of morphine and have different levels in their blood, depending on how they snorted it.

Criminal complaint

The complaint that charged Crabtree with murder said the party's host found Boe at about 9 a.m. Dec. 24, 2008, lying on a couch; he was unresponsive. Authorities were called to the house, and Boe was taken to the Clearwater County Memorial Hospital, where his death was made official.

Authorities said roughly half a dozen people in their early 20s attended the party. The complaint said the host told investigators Crabtree gave morphine pills to other partygoers. One guest told officers he saw three lines of crushed morphine on the bathroom counter, and everyone at the party snorted some of the morphine, according to the complaint.

Brand said several party-goers, including Crabtree, were on probation and were consequently tested for drugs after the party. Crabtree's test from that afternoon came back negative for morphine, she said.

Brand received Boe's autopsy report in May 2009, and she charged Crabtree with murder in September. Nelson said Crabtree maintained his innocence all along. Brand said she made her decision to drop the murder charge with input from Boe's family.

Aside from the drug charge against Crabtree, Brand said, no other charges have resulted from the party.

Public health

Nelson said an expert in overdoses caused by opiates, such as morphine and heroin, contacted him after reading about the case. That expert -- Dr. Peter Davidson at the University of California, San Diego -- said some of the details he read didn't add up.

The fact that Boe consumed alcohol along with morphine caught Davidson's attention. Like morphine, alcohol is a depressant that affects the central nervous system and is "a huge co-factor in heroin overdose deaths," he said.

Davidson said this is the first criminal case he's consulted in and was prompted to do so by a concern that people who hear of Crabtree's case would hesitate to call for help in the future when a friend overdoses, fearing they might get in trouble.

"From my point of view, it's all about public health," he said. "We want people to call 911 and not be scared of what's going to happen to them.

"That's how you reduce the number of this kind of tragedy."

Ingersoll reports on crime and courts. Reach him at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to aingersoll@gfherald.com.

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