Dec 2, 2014 5:59 PM by CNN
Eighteen-year-old Christian Bjerk was a popular high school football player. The middle of Keith and Debbie Bjerk’s three sons, he was looking forward to starting at North Dakota State College of Science in the fall of 2012 and playing on the college’s football team.
But on the morning of June 11, 2012, Christian was found dead, lying face down on the sidewalk not far from his Grand Forks, North Dakota, home.
The police officer who broke the news to Christian’s father was also Christian’s youth football coach.
“He teared up, and I didn’t know what was going on, and he said it’s Christian, he’s deceased,” Keith Bjerk told CNN.
Keith last saw his son the night before as Christian was going out to buy gas. The Bjerks would later learn that their son ran into some teens he knew and went to a house party.
Not far from Christian’s body, the police found two disoriented teenagers. One was naked on a bench, the other screaming at parked cars. Right away, the police suspected that drugs were involved.
According to Mike Jennings, the detective on call that night, a search of the house where the party was held turned up a white powder, but police couldn’t determine what it was.
Days later, another teen was dead, and again, a mysterious white powder was involved. Officers were racing to figure out exactly what these substances were.
Fatal reactions from mystery substance
Elijah Stai and his foster brother Justin Rippentrop came to Grand Forks from Park Rapids, Minnesota. They were celebrating Elijah’s upcoming 18th birthday and visiting his cousin.
Elijah and Justin were hanging out with their cousin’s boyfriend, Adam Budge, when according to Justin, he offered them a special treat — a bag of chocolate he cooked with a white powder. Justin said that Adam told them the powder was an extract from psychedelic mushrooms.
Elijah was nervous, Justin said, because he had never tried psychedelic mushrooms before.
Soon after they ate the bag of laced chocolate, the hallucinations began.
“The trees looked like cauliflowers like dancing around,” Justin recalled. “The sidewalks were swooping up and down like a roller coaster, and the grass was shooting up to the sky.”
Justin said that he had tried psychedelic mushrooms once before, but he quickly realized this was something different.
Elijah started having a violent reaction to the drug. He was convulsing uncontrollably, foaming at the mouth and hitting his head. By the time the ambulance arrived, Justin said he knew Elijah was gone.
Elijah was rushed to Grand Fork’s Altru Hospital, where Dr. Qasim Durrani, an ICU physician treated him. Dr. Durrani said Elijah was suffering from multiple organ failure and had also gone into cardiac arrest.
Elijah was brain dead. On June 15, 2012, after three days in the hospital, his family decided to disconnect his life support.
“It was an unusual overdose,” said Durrani. “The dilemma was, what has he taken?”
The new world of drug dealing
Elijah’s death, the second in two days from a mysterious drug sent shock waves through the community.
It took the state lab a week to identify that the mysterious powders were synthetic designer drugs — drugs that law enforcement in North Dakota had never heard of before. Elijah and Christian had died from taking these drugs.
“When we learned they were 2C-I-NBOMe, and 2C-C-NBOMe, that was new to us,” said Chris Myers, North Dakota’s top federal drug prosecutor.
2C-I-NBOMe (also known as 25I-NBOMe) and 2C-C-NBOMe are synthetic designer drugs, chemicals designed to imitate the high of the banned drug LSD. These synthetic designer drugs are so potent that a dose the size of a few grains of salt can be enough to get high.
In the past four years, more than 300 synthetic designer drugs with names such as Spice, N-bombe and K2, have flooded into the United States.
“These drugs are being marketed and sold as legal alternatives to marijuana, cocaine, meth and heroin,” said John Scherbenske of the DEA.
As states and the federal government race to “schedule” or ban chemical compounds, the manufacturers are staying one step ahead of the law by constantly changing the drugs’ chemical composition.
“The chemical companies are altering the compound ever so slightly to avoid our laws here in the United States. Once they alter that chemical, it is no longer a controlled substance,” said Scherbenske.
According to the DEA, the majority of the chemical companies manufacturing synthetic drugs are in China. The U.S. government and other Western countries have been putting pressure on the Chinese government to ban certain chemicals and to stop the export of these chemicals worldwide.
In the new world of drug dealing, the chemicals are manufactured overseas, sold online in bulk and imported into the United States, where they are assembled and packaged for resale. These drugs are then labeled as research chemicals, not for human consumption, to avoid prosecution.
Scherbenske said there is no known legitimate purposes for these chemicals.
The drugs that killed Christian and Elijah were not banned by the DEA at the time of their death. The teens’ parents had never even heard of 2C-I-NBOME.
“I had to go to the Internet, and look up information on it,” said Keith Bjerk. “I didn’t really know what it was, I didn’t get how dangerous they were.”
In North Dakota, law enforcement was trying to track where the new drugs came from and figure out how to get them off the street. The investigation quickly led them to Budge.
“Adam Budge early on in the investigation was the common link [between] the two overdoses,” said prosecutor Myers.
According to Myers, Budge, who was 18 at the time, melted the 2C-I-NBOME powder into chocolate that he gave to Elijah, and also sold some of the same drug to Wesley Sweeney, also then 18, who gave it to Christian Bjerk.
Myers said Budge didn’t know exactly what the powder was, because he stole it from a drug dealer named Andrew Spofford, 22, who bought it over the Internet from an online company called Motion Resources.
An investigation in motion
Motion Resources founder Charles Carlton started the online company in 2011, when he saw how easy it was to buy psychedelic designer drugs online from overseas.
Carlton said he was using synthetic designer drugs himself when realized that “there was money to be made in distributing them in small quantities.”
His website would become a boutique drug dealership for enthusiasts, shipping synthetic drugs all over the country.
Though the company’s product mimicked the illegal drug LSD, Carlton said the chemicals he was selling weren’t yet banned in the United States. He set up shop in an office building, even registered with the secretary of state, and went to work.
“I was an employee of my own company, getting a W-2, we had full payroll services,” said Carlton. “I mean we knew we were walking a very fine line as far as the law was concerned, but at the time, we felt that we were on the right side of it.”
Carlton knew that he could be prosecuted if the government proved that he was selling his chemicals for recreational use, so he labeled every package “for analytical and research purposes only.”
The product sold itself, Carlton said, and quickly he and his two colleagues were repackaging chemicals they bought in bulk, filling 30 to 40 orders a day and processing was he estimated to be $40,000-$50,000 a month in credit card payments. Motion Resources had customers in all 50 states, and profits were rolling in.
Carlton’s business was running for eight months when he saw a story on the news about drug overdoses in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The story featured a shot of a baggie, and Carlton, 28 at the time, said he knew right away that it was his product.
“We had a very special label maker that printed on clear labels,” he said. “I was in shock; I didn’t want anything like that to happen.”
Carlton is the father of two young kids. He said that as a parent, he was stunned, yet he continued to run his business. What Carlton didn’t know was that his business partner, Harry George Mickelis, was cooperating with law enforcement.
In Grand Forks, Myers was looking for the source of this deadly batch of designer drugs when he got a phone call that would crack the case.
“Before we heard of Motion Resources, his partner contacted our office through his lawyer and indicated to us that he could explain the entire conspiracy to us,” Myers said.
Mickelis would avoid prosecution, and Charles Carlton became the government’s prime target. The police search of Carlton’s home and office turned up a critical piece of evidence that would seal his fate. It turned out that Carlton kept a journal, documenting his own use of the drugs. It was a kind of a “how to” guide of the drugs he sold.
“That was powerful evidence to show that they knew full well what these substances would do and formed this company to sell them,” said Myers.
Carlton decided not to fight and pleaded guilty to three counts: possession with intent to distribute controlled substance analog resulting in death, money laundering conspiracy and misbranding and forfeiture of $385,000.
He first spoke with CNN while awaiting sentencing, facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in jail. Carlton said he decided to speak up to let as many people know about the dangers of synthetic drugs as possible.
The ripple effect
Carlton was the 15th person prosecuted under the North Dakota federal drug case now called Operation Stolen Youth, which began with the deaths of Bjerk and Stai.
Andrew Spofford, who bought the drugs online from Carlton; Adam Budge, who got the drugs from Spofford; Wesley Sweeney, the teen who bought the drugs from Budge and shared them with Bjerk; and several low-level dealers are all behind bars, serving a combined 121 years in prison.
“The message that we have sent with this prosecution is that these are dangerous substances,” said Myers, who hopes this case will not only raise awareness but also save lives.
Debbie Bjerk has been at most of the hearings and sentencings. She is there to tell the court about her son, to show his photos and to play a video of him dressed in his uniform on the football field. She was at the federal courthouse on August 28 for Carlton’s sentencing.
At 30, Carlton was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for the deaths of Elijah Stai and Debbie and Keith’s son Christian. For the Bjerks, this case will never be over.
“It’s never going to be done. Christian was — he was a child, he was our flesh and blood, he was someone who was so important to us that we would’ve given our lives for him,” Keith Bjerk said. “It is now our job to get the word out there to the rest of the people so that no other families have to go through this kind of thing and to honor our son.”
Since their son’s death, the Bjerks have become activists, getting the word out on the dangers of synthetic drugs. Thanks to their efforts, North Dakota has put in new legislation banning a number of synthetics. And federally, the drug that killed the teens is now on the list of DEA scheduled substances.
Elijah’s family members say they hope his death will be a warning to others about the dangers of synthetic designer drugs.
“I want other parents to know what their kids are doing,” said Melissa Katz, Elijah’s mom. “You should always know what your kids are doing on the computer, online, with their friends. … This can happen to any family.”
Across the country and around the world, synthetic drugs are tearing holes in families.
These “designer drugs” such as spice, K2 and bath salts are easy to get and difficult to regulate. Many are made in laboratories overseas and shipped to the United States with labels noting that they are “not for human consumption.”
These labels, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, hide the real purpose of the drugs and evade oversight by the FDA.
Synthetic drugs first appeared in the United States around 2009 and have since exploded in popularity, especially among teens.
CNN’s investigative documentary, “Deadly High: How Synthetic Drugs are Killing Kids,” tells the story of Christian Bjerk and Elijah Stai, two teens who died within days of each other after taking synthetic drugs that came from the same source.
Other parents who lost their sons to synthetic drugs shared their stories with CNN. Here, in their own words, is what they want you to know about their child and about synthetic drugs. These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.
David Burnett, father of Chase Burnett
“Chase was a magnet for everyone he came across from a toddler to high school. His nonjudgmental personality coupled with positive outlook drew everyone to him throughout his entire life. He had a sparkle in his eyes that drew even strangers to his friendship.
“Chase had an impact on most everyone who came to know and love him and even continues today to touch lives both physically and spiritually. He would have made a huge difference in the world both as a father, husband and positive contributor to society! While he is sorely missed by many, Chase’s legacy and positive impact lives on. His family and tons of friends understand what a difference he was in life and his spirit lives forever.
“These synthetic drugs or ‘poisons’ are chemicals that are not regulated by anyone and will kill or negatively affect your body and/or brain. There is nothing natural in these poisonous substances made by men and drug dealers.”
Karen Dobner, mother of Max Dobner
“There are few things that have been a greater threat to the mental health and well-being of our young people than synthetic drugs. Actually, the U.N. characterizes synthetic drugs as a threat to the ‘health and welfare of mankind.’ I talk to victims regularly, and it’s heartbreaking to hear the horror stories and the pain and suffering that results from the use of these poisons.
“People need to understand that using synthetic drugs is like playing Russian roulette and the consequences could be deadly. Brand new chemicals are constantly being synthesized and entering the market. These chemicals have never been seen on Earth before. So, basically our young people are acting as lab rats, and the experiment isn’t going well, at all.
“Unfortunately, I’m living through the nightmare of losing my son, Max, to Spice/K2 after his first-time use. There are no words to describe the pain that I am living through.
“So, talk to your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews. It may save their lives and save you from a fate worse then death.
“I’d rather have died than lost my Max.”
Lance Dyer, father of Dakota Dyer
“Dakota was 14 when he passed away from the effects of a one-time use of synthetic marijuana. He was your typical middle class, suburban teenage boy. He enjoyed the outdoors, animals, Xbox games and football.
He was 6′ 3″ and the starting defensive end on the Bremen Blue Devils, an A-B Student, and was the love and joy of his mother and father. He had just recently received the Presidential Community Service Award for his actions in cleaning up a polluted creek and reintroducing frogs and salamanders back into it.
“As with any young man, he was coming into his own. Dakota was a whiz at computers and technology, and had a knack for always being the one who took up for anyone who was being bullied or picked on. He had a multitude of friends whom he adored and adored him. Dakota had never not once in his life ever tried a drug or narcotic.
“He made a series of mistakes over a 36-hour period that resulted in him trying a very small amount of what was called at the time “The New Legal Weed.”
It was a bag of Mr. Miyagi Time Out — a type of synthetic marijuana. He tried smoking this on a Saturday morning around 11 a.m. The effects of this sent him into what was referred to as a psychotic break. During this episode, he took a hand gun and ended his life with a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head.
“Dakota’s actions on that morning were in complete contradiction of his nature and how he lived his life. His mother and I can only imagine the war he was fighting inside himself due to the effects of this synthetic drug that would cause him to seek such a permanent, devastating solution.
“Since Dakota’s passing, we have formed the Dakota Dyer Foundation, with the sole intent to help educate our young adults about the physical and mental dangers of synthetic drugs and assist law enforcement in tracking down and exposing synthetic drug manufacturers and distributors.
“We also help provide tools and detection equipment to schools and law enforcement agencies to assist in identifying synthetic drugs, such as Tru-Narcs, K2-D2 urine test kits and just recently the first synthetic marijuana detecting K-9 in the country was donated by the Dakota Dyer Foundation to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department in Georgia. His name is K-9 Officer Dakota, and his badge number is 88, Dakota’s football number.
“Our message to parents is be proactive in your child’s life, when it comes to synthetic drugs, educate yourself then your child about the deadly effects of these poisons. It only takes one time, one mistake, one uninformed decision, one bad teenage experiment to end your child’s life. Become informed and aware, monitor your children’s Internet access, text messaging, Snapchats and Instagrams. Do not think for one second “not my child” or “my child would never do that.”
“We had no idea what synthetic drugs were at the time of Dakota’s passing, and he had no idea of their effects. You have the opportunity to educate yourselves. We beg of you, as one set of parents to another, do not waste the chance you have.
“We would do anything to have had the opportunity to educate our son on these synthetic poisons instead of picking out a casket, mourning his loss and looking at all the empty spaces he should be occupying. Do not be a parent who has to look at those empty spaces.”
Veronica and Devin Eckhardt, parents of Connor Eckhardt
“If we knew that we would only be given 19 years with our son, we would still say yes. Connor’s life and laughter would always command and brighten a room. There was no stranger to Connor, and he left a mark everywhere he went. He loved deeply and felt deeply. He lived a life of all in. He loved God, his family and his friends.
“When Connor was put in our arms in the hospital, we knew this boy would do great things. We used to tell him that he and his life story would touch hundreds, maybe thousands or millions of people. We did not know this would happen through his death.
“Connor died after taking one hit of the toxic, synthetic drug sometimes known as ‘spice.’ Shortly after ingesting this deceptively harmless looking drug, he fell into a coma, and two days later was declared brain dead. We had never heard of ‘spice’ or the dangerous synthetic drugs like it before. But through the outpouring of love from around the world, we realized we were not the only ones devastated by this deadly drug. Within a week of Connor’s death, strangers from around the globe were asking us for help. Something needed to be done.
“That is how we founded The Connor Project and the effort to stop synthetic drugs. The Connor Project not only honors Connor’s name, it offers the opportunity to raise awareness about the widespread availability of deadly, chemically laced synthetic drugs, and work to change policy so that not one more family has to suffer the loss of a loved one in the way we lost our son. We won’t stop until it is done.
“Connor’s light could not be extinguished in death and still lives on. He will make a difference.”
Kali Smith, mother of Tyler Smith
“My son, Tyler, went to school for his senior year and was provided cherry flavored incense purchased one block from his high school. He smoked it in the bathroom, while Tyler believed it to be flavored tobacco, not knowing it was synthetic marijuana. He became extremely ill and after taking him to the doctors, testing him for drugs and other illnesses, four days later he was gone.
“Police found a small pipe and a few packages of the cherry flavored incense in his pocket and car, Tyler had come home from work, even though he was sick, changed his clothes and took his own life. I then started the Tyler J. Smith Purple Project to raise awareness and spread hope and prevention. We passed two laws in Nebraska to outlaw some types of synthetic drugs. I have met with several lawmakers and am pushing to change the age limit from 18 to 21 for purchasing specialty novelties, from head shops.
“We are forever changed after the loss of Tyler, and we will never be the same. Tyler was an amazing young man, never judged anyone and loved with a compassion for others that was admirable. He was my youngest of three boys, and my best friend.”
Teresa Woolson, mother of Victor Woolson
“Victor Orlando Woolson was a funny, smart, compassionate young man who blessed this Earth for 19 years and 21 days. He graduated from high school with an advanced regents diploma, spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps Junior ROTC program, received a leadership certification and had many friends and family who looked up to him. Victor’s career choice was in criminal justice, and he was an exemplary student, son, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin, friend and community member.
“I would like parents to know that synthetic drugs are very, very dangerous poisonous chemicals being marketed to young people. Legal products in stores can be deadly, a fact my son could not understand.
“Regular discussions on the volatile nature of products and marketing techniques may help save lives. Be informed and stay informed as these deadly products continue to flood our nation in many different forms and packages.”
TM & © 2014 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.
Editor’s note: Watch “Deadly High: How Synthetic Drugs are Killing Kids” Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.
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