Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Manvel teen gets 12.5 years for providing lethal synthetic drugs

A federal judge Monday sentenced Wesley Sweeney, 18, to 12½ years in prison for his confessed role in providing synthetic hallucinogens that led to the death of Christian Bjerk, also 18, and the hospitalization of a 15-year-old boy in Grand Forks in June.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

FARGO — A federal judge Monday sentenced Wesley Sweeney, 18, to 12½ years in prison for his confessed role in providing synthetic hallucinogens that led to the death of Christian Bjerk, also 18, and the hospitalization of a 15-year-old boy in Grand Forks in June.

One of 11 charged in a Grand Forks synthetic drug conspiracy, Sweeney is the first to be sentenced for causing death and bodily injury.

Sweeney admitted buying two hallucinogens on June 10 from Adam Budge, now 19, in East Grand Forks and then providing the drugs to Bjerk and C.J., the 15-year-old, in an apartment in northwest Grand Forks. Bjerk drove him to Budge’s home to buy the drugs and later to a party in Grand Forks, Sweeney said.

About 5:45 a.m., June 11, Bjerk was found dead on a nearby lawn. C.J. and Sweeney, who also took the drugs, were found nearby, disoriented and incoherent, and were hospitalized.

Facing a federal charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence, Sweeney took a plea deal in late August.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers has identified Andrew Spofford, 22, as the “hobby chemist,” who ordered chemicals from Europe, Asia and Houston to make the hallucinogens in his rented home near UND. In less than a week, the drugs killed two and led to serious health issues for a handful of others, including juveniles, Myers said.

Bjerk died June 11. Elijah Stai, 17, died June 15 in Altru Hospital after taking the drug June 13 in East Grand Forks.


“I want to take this time to apologize to the family of Christian, and my family and the community,” said Sweeney before U.S. Judge Ralph Erickson imposed a sentence. “Christian was one of my best friends and I never wanted any harm to come to him.”

He was lied to by Budge about the nature of one of the drugs he bought, Sweeney said, and that it was three friends pooling their money to buy and take drugs together. He blamed years of addiction to drugs for clouding his judgment.

About 32 family members and friends of Sweeney, including two Catholic priests, filled one side of the court room. Several, including Sweeney’s parents, Mary Jo and Robert Sweeney, read prepared statements to Erickson emphasizing Sweeney’s problems with drug addiction. His father said his dream was that his son would finish high school and college and return to take over the family farm near Manvel, N.D.

About 10 family members and friends of Bjerk sat on the other side of the room. His parents, Keith and Debbie Bjerk, gave tearful statements about the impact of his death.

“I go to the cemetery every day and pray the rosary with my son,” Keith Bjerk said.

In pointed criticism of Sweeney’s family, Keith and Debbie Bjerk said they warned their son to stay away from Sweeney last spring because they saw him as a bad influence with a criminal record.

When told to stay away from Sweeney, Christian would ask why, Bjerk said during his statement. “I think we all know why now.”

Sweeney’s attorney, David Dusek, told Erickson that Sweeney did not sell any drugs to Bjerk or C.J., but took the drugs himself, too, in a tragic “nightmare,” that started with three friends partying.

Sweeney put the powdered hallucinogen in “lines” on a table and offered it to anyone, ingesting some himself. “He didn’t encourage anyone else to take it,” Dusek said.

Sweeney is not a violent criminal, but rather a longtime addict who needs help, Dusek said.

Plea deal

Sweeney faced a maximum sentence of life in prison and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, based on the death of Bjerk and injury to C.J., the 15-year-old boy who spent two days in intensive care in Altru Hospital.

Based on the circumstances of Sweeney’s case, including prior criminal history, federal sentencing guidelines indicated a range of about 21 years to 27 years, according to statements in court.

Myers recommended 13½ years, saying Sweeney had provided timely help to the investigation that led to several other sources in Grand Forks as well as outside of North Dakota.

“We are pleased with this sentence and feel justice was done,” Myers said after the hearing.

“I lost a son,” Keith Bjerk said after the hearing. “Even if it was a life sentence, it wouldn’t seem like enough because it can’t replace my son. But it’s probably fair.”

Sweeney’s family declined comment after the hearing. His mother, crying loudly and nearly collapsing, was helped by friends into a meeting room. Sweeney spent about 15 minutes in the court room greeting and hugging family members and friends after the hearing. He will remain in custody until he’s transferred to federal prison near St. Cloud, Minn.

Unusual hearing

It was an unusually long sentencing hearing of more than two hours, in which families of Sweeney and Bjerk described lives of affluent people.

Myers acknowledged it was not a typical drug trafficking sentencing.

“This case illustrates that drug trafficking does not discriminate,” Myers said. “It affects every social and economic position in our society.

Before pronouncing sentence, Erickson remarked on how unusual it was in a drug trafficking case to have so many people appear, including to speak for or against the defendant.

He sentences drug criminals on almost a daily basis, he said, and usually “the court room has no one in it.”

Often, such drug criminals are seen as “throw-away people,” Erickson said. “But they’re not. They hurt like you hurt.”

But it seems in the “surging” drug epidemic “nobody pays any attention until it hits home.”

The judge said the evidence of lives ruined, such senseless crimes, is heart-breaking.

“These chemists who make this junk, you wouldn’t trust to make spaghetti sauce,” Erickson said.

Previously, Myers has said in court that Spofford bought chemicals from sources in Europe, China and in Houston. On Monday, he told Erickson that Sweeney’s information helped move the investigation “to sources outside of North Dakota.” Myers said later the investigation also has “an international component,” but said he cannot provide any details about it.

Second sentence

Also Monday in the same conspiracy case, Erickson sentenced Ronald Norling III to 27 months in prison, probably in Duluth, for his admitted role. Myers says Norling distributed the drugs Spofford made that included synthetic hallucinogens as well as their “analogues,” or chemical cousins. Cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy also were distributed.

Last week, Spofford’s roommate, William Fox, was sentenced to 24 months in prison for his role in the drug conspiracy.

Nine of the 11 charged have taken plea deals with Myers, including Spofford and Budge, who are expected to be sentenced in coming months. Two others may reach plea deals, too.

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