By Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications
FARGO — U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson today sentenced the first of nine people who have pleaded guilty in a synthetic drug ring blamed for killing two area teenagers. Grand Forks resident William Joseph Fox received a sentence of four years in prison for his role in the crime.
The ruling gives a preview of what other defendants in the case might face in upcoming sentences.
Fox, 24, was the roommate of Andrew Spofford, 22, the former University of North Dakota student who admitted being the “hobby chemist,” who ordered chemicals from overseas to make hallucinogens, including “analogues,” which are chemically similar versions of illegal hallucinogens.
The two lived at 2200 4th Ave. N. in Grand Forks, where Spofford cooked and packaged his product.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers told Erickson that Fox did not play a central role in the drug conspiracy and cooperated early in the federal investigation, helping investigators charge several others.
Fox told Erickson he has had a lifetime of abusing alcohol and drugs and wants to get his life straight during his prison term, including going through treatment programs that could shorten his sentence.
Fox faced a drug conspiracy charge with a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $2 million fine; federal guidelines indicated a sentence of as much as nine years would be recommended, based on the facts of his admitted crime and the amount of drugs involved.
But Myers, in agreement with Fox’s attorney, Patrick Rosenquist, said Fox’s difficult life, mental health problems and “substantial assistance,” in the case, mitigated against his criminal history, including a methamphetamine felony conviction in Grand Forks in 2008.
According to a document filed by Rosenquist, Fox had a troubled childhood in which his parents abused drugs and broke the law. His mother died of a drug overdose when he was 11 and his father took his own life shortly after Fox, at 18, moved to North Dakota to live with him, Rosenquist said. Fox has mental health problems and was put on a suicide watch while in the Grand Forks County jail in recent months, according to Rosenquist.
Fox regrets the deaths and injuries caused by the hallucinogens, Rosenquist said. On June 11, drugs made by Spofford led to the death of Christan Bjerk, 18, in Grand Forks, and the hospitalization of a 15-year-old boy. On June 13, Elijah Stai, 17, of Park Rapids, Minn., ingested a hallucinogen made by Spofford and quickly went into a coma in East Grand Forks, dying June 15 in Altru Hospital in Grand Forks.
It appears the case is quickly unfolding. Next week, Adam Budge, 19, East Grand Forks, and Wesley Sweeney, 18, of Manvel, N.D., are facing more serious charges than Fox and will be sentenced in the case.
Both face maximum sentences of life in prison and mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years, as well as a fine of $1 million since they admitted their actions led to the deaths and injuries of others who took the drugs.
Budge admitted stealing and buying hallucinogens from Spofford, mixing them into chocolate bars and giving them to Stai.
Sweeney admitted buying hallucinogens from Budge, who had obtained them from Spofford, and providing them to Bjerk and the 15-year-old boy.
Also due for sentencing next week in the case is Ronald Norling III, arrested last spring in possession of drugs and other materials traced back to Spofford. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years and his attorney, Joseph Quinn, has argued for a sentence of two years, based on his cooperation and difficult life.
Judge Erickson agreed to Fox’s request that he serve his four years in a low-security federal prison in Duluth, where Fox said he could benefit from educational and drug treatment programs.
Myers has charged 11 people in the conspiracy and says the investigation is ongoing. Spofford himself has pleaded guilty, taking a deal with Myers, as have eight others. Two men, Casey Rosen and Steven Bucher, have not taken plea deals yet.
Most of the 11 defendants were students at UND in recent years.