FARGO--For much of 2015, area law enforcement agents were aware of an interesting development in how heroin dealers marketed their product.

Agents called it the "heroin hotline," and they knew it played a role in many of the cases they were working on, particularly those involving dealers who obtained the drug from out of state.

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While law enforcement officers had been aware for many months that a specific phone number was being used by consumers to contact dealers, agents didn't know the actual number until late last summer.

That's when they executed a search warrant on the phone of a Fargo man who, as part of an investigation, admitted to buying more than 100 grams of heroin and to calling a phone number set up by traffickers.

The suspect in that case, Jeremy Tibiatowski, was convicted of possessing a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia.

He was sentenced to two years in prison, with all but 180 days of that sentence stayed.

While authorities were able to obtain the hotline number by searching Tibiatowski's phone, the information didn't necessarily lead investigators to more suspects, Brett Shasky, a federal prosecutor in Fargo, said Thursday, March 17.

Shasky said what the disclosure did provide was supporting evidence in cases prosecutors were already working that involved suspects authorities knew had used the hotline to buy drugs.

"It (the number) simply helped corroborate information we already had," Shasky said.

On another level, the existence of the hotline underscores the resurgent nature of heroin at a time when fatal heroin overdoses are showing up in alarming numbers in the region. Police suspect three recent deaths in the Fargo-Moorhead area are heroin-related, and state crime agents in Minnesota say they suspect seven people died from heroin in western and central Minnesota in recent week.

Shasky said he believes the vast majority of heroin users probably started out abusing prescription medications and switched to heroin when their supply of pills, for whatever reason, dried up.

"I think the heroin became a cheaper alternative, especially when people found it more difficult to get prescription medications," he said.

"It certainly it appears it (heroin) is a little too easy to get your hands on now," Shasky said, adding that users clearly do not appreciate the dangers of the drug.

He said that might be because "by the time they get to it, the addiction is too strong."

Shasky said he doesn't know if the Heroin Hotline is still being used, but he said it is unlikely.

He also said it isn't known at this time whether the hotline is tied to any fatal overdoses. Given the time frame the hotline was known to be in operation, that may be unlikely, he said.