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Work in synthetic drug case could receive national recognition

The investigation and dismantling of a major synthetic drug organization that began following a series of deaths and overdoses in Grand Forks could earn the agencies involved national accolades.

Operation Stolen Youth, the name given to the investigation, is being nominated for a national award by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office in Fargo.

The investigation also has captured the attention of CNN, which First Assistant U.S. District Attorney Chris Myers said is producing a documentary about the case that has led to the conviction of 15 people since 2012.

CNN did not respond to requests for comment regarding the documentary by deadline.

Both the award and documentary could bring recognition to the hazards of synthetic drugs — at one time perceived by users to be a safer alternative to other drugs.

“It’s important to law enforcement and our office that the public be aware of the dangers of synthetic drugs sold in North Dakota or elsewhere,” Myers said.

‘Unique and tragic’

The award the investigation could win is presented by the U.S. Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces Program.

The program’s goal is to reduce the availability and supply of illegal drugs in America.

The large scale of the synthetic drug operation and the collaboration between local, state and federal agencies to shut it down qualify Operation Stolen Youth for the award.

In the two months following the June death of overdose victim Christian Bjerk, 18, in Grand Forks, the major players in the international drug organization were identified and the drug ring dismantled.

“That is unbelievably fast for this type of case,” Myers said.

The case’s nomination will be heard at a regional level first before potentially moving on for national consideration, according to Myers.

Each of the nine regions in the United States will submit three cases for the national award. The national winner would be announced in 2015.

Included in North Dakota’s region are South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and southern Illinois.

The Fargo U.S. District Attorney’s Office doesn’t nominate cases for the award every year, according to Myers.

“This is a unique and tragic case,” he said.

New drugs

The case began when two teenagers, Bjerk and 17-year-old Elijah Stai, died from synthetic drug overdoses in June 2012 just days apart.

Grand Forks County Deputy Coroner Dr. Mark Koponen was called to the scene of both deaths. From evidence found at the scene, Koponen said he and the police had an idea of what was behind their deaths, but tests were needed to confirm both had died from the same drug.

Unlike test results on numerous crime shows, confirmation the drugs were the same didn’t come in after a few hours.

“We were talking months,” Koponen said.

In 2012, very few testing procedures for synthetic drugs existed. In this case, a test had to be crafted almost from scratch by a laboratory in Colorado — a test that would have to stand up to scrutiny in both the scientific community and in court.

The investigation connected drugs mixed by local dealers to the ring’s leader to a Texas man named Charles Carlton and traced him to European suppliers. Prosecutors reached a plea agreement with the last of the 15 people charged in the case in March.

Though Koponen said he prefers to remain in the background when it comes doing his job, he added it’s nice to know he and other involved in the investigation could serve those affected by the drugs and their families.

“Ultimately, we work for the families,” Koponen said.