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Woman gets 6 years in prison in fatal heroin-fentanyl overdose case in Minnesota

Kayla Jo Vranish

Judge Dale Harris spent more than an hour Monday hearing arguments on the appropriate sentence for a 23-year-old defendant who admitted to selling a fatal dose of heroin to a 62-year-old Hermantown woman.

But there was one detail of the case not mentioned at the hearing that really stood out, the judge said. It was a text message exchanged between the defendant and the victim.

“Everyone I serve keeps coming back,” Kayla Jo Vranish wrote to Kathy Ann Davis on Nov. 29, 2014, a day before Davis was found dead by her husband.

“Ms. Davis isn’t coming back,” Harris said during the hearing Monday in State District Court in Duluth.

The judge sentenced Vranish to more than six years in prison, a guideline term and the maximum sentence available under a plea agreement reached between Vranish and the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office.

Vranish in June pleaded guilty to a third-degree murder charge, admitting that she sold the fatal dose of heroin laced with fentanyl, a potent prescription painkiller.

Minnesota’s third-degree murder statute has been increasingly invoked to prosecute drug overdose deaths in recent years, but some critics have argued that it is too severe and only serves to punish low-level drug dealers.

St. Louis County prosecutor Kristen Swanson pushed for the 74-month sentence, while defense attorney Kassius Benson argued for a probationary sentence that would have included additional jail time and treatment.

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin praised the sentence as a victory in the Northland’s ongoing struggle with the heroin trade.

"This is a tragedy all the way around," he said in a statement. "Our sympathy goes out to the family of Kathy Ann Davis. Our gratitude goes to law enforcement for a stellar investigation into the heroin trade here in the Northland that has resulted in another person being brought to justice."

Meanwhile, Benson said he was disappointed that his client would not have the opportunity to benefit from treatment that she could receive out of prison. He said Vranish has had a rough life — losing her parents to cancer at a young age, losing a newborn child and long battling addiction — but said she is ready and willing to change, if given the opportunity.

“There is no reason in the world for her to go to prison,” Benson told the News Tribune after the hearing. “She has taken responsibility and understands the seriousness of what happened. If she’s not amenable to probation, I don’t know who is.”

Davis’ son, Justin Wahlberg, delivered a brief victim impact statement, describing his mother as his “best friend.” He did not recommend any specific sentence, but did note that his mother, a former nurse, was a “believer in second chances.”

“My mother was a good person,” he said. “Did she have her demons? Yes. But she was a good person.”

Benson suggested that Vranish be placed on probation for a minimum of 10 years. He proposed that she serve an additional two months in jail and then be released to the Duluth Bethel Female Offender Program, where she would undergo six months of treatment.

Benson described probation not as a “second chance” but a “first chance” for Vranish, who he said has lived a traumatic life that led to an inevitable spiral into addiction.

“No part of her wanted to inflict upon another person the death of a loved one,” he told Harris. “She did not put the fentanyl in the heroin. She was not a kingpin. But she has taken responsibility for selling the drugs that killed Ms. Davis.”

Swanson questioned whether Vranish is ready to change her lifestyle, citing behavioral issues at the St. Louis County Jail since her arrest, included the alleged use of controlled substances. The prosecutor said Vranish could also receive treatment while in prison

Addressing the concerns over the third-degree murder statute, Swanson said Vranish had not demonstrated a compelling reason for the judge to depart from state sentencing guidelines.

“When you sell drugs to someone who overdoses and dies — regardless of what you intended — you go to prison,” she said. “That’s what the law says.”

Vranish is the third defendant in Northeastern Minnesota to be sentenced on a third-degree murder charge in recent months.

Bryan Joseph Hodapp, 29, of Eveleth, was sentenced in March to 10 years in prison in the synthetic hallucinogen death of his girlfriend, Krystal Wicklund. In Carlton County, 52-year-old Robert Todd Ferguson was sentenced in December to more than seven years in the fentanyl overdose death of his daughter’s friend, Paul Mrosla.

Both have appealed their cases, while several other defendants in the Northland and around the state continue to face the third-degree charge.

"I am left with two questions,” Rubin said. “How many deaths will it take for people to either be afraid to ever even experiment with drugs, or to take immediate measures to seek treatment for their addiction? And how many deaths and destroyed lives will it take for drug dealers to finally discover that obviously deeply hidden moral fiber to quit selling such a deadly, destructive substance?"