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3 sentenced in synthetic drugs case: Mother of boy who died of overdose pleads for leniency for son’s dealer

FARGO — The mother of a teenager who died after taking synthetic drugs asked a federal judge Thursday for a reduced prison sentence for her son’s dealer, a 20-year-old who faced a mandatory sentence of at least 20 years for providing the fatal dose.

As she spoke, Elijah Stai’s mother, Melissa Katz, faced away from a crowded court gallery, which included the parents of Adam Budge, the dealer who pleaded guilty in late 2012 to a conspiracy charge of possession of synthetic drugs with intent to deliver resulting in death.

“They are losing Adam, too,” she said through tears. “I am here today to say that I forgive Adam … really, why make one more family grieve the loss of a child?”

Departing from the 20-year minimum, U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Erickson sentenced Budge to 11 years and four months in prison, with three years’ supervised probation. Prosecutors asked for a little more than 12 years, while the defense sought a 10-year stint.

Erickson cited cooperation as a reason for a lighter sentence, and called it one of the most difficult drug conspiracies he’d ever seen. Though the dealers themselves weren’t dangerous people, the synthetic drugs they were peddling were profoundly so, he said.

“This is a bunch of kids who all thought they were amateur chemists,” he said. “What were they thinking? … Well, they’re young. They’re bulletproof.”

Katz was one of two sets of parents and grandparents of dead teenagers who spoke at Budge’s sentencing hearing in Fargo. She was the only one to ask Erickson for leniency.

Stai, who was 17, and Christian Bjerk, who was 18, both died shortly after overdosing on synthetic hallucinogens that Budge admitted getting from another man, Andrew Spofford of Grand Forks, and giving to the two teens in June 2012. Stai was from Park Rapids, Minn., and Bjerk was from Grand Forks.

Spofford, Budge and at least 13 others have been charged in connection with the case, which stretched past self-described Spofford, a “hobby chemist” in Grand Forks, to Texas and beyond.

Prosecutors said Charles Carlton, the alleged Houston-based kingpin, bought chemicals from Asia and Europe for sale to people in several states, including Spofford.

Two other men charged in the case, Byron Landry of Kiln, Miss., and Ryan Lane of East Grand Forks, Minn., were also sentenced Thursday in the case after pleading guilty to charges of possessing synthetics with intent to deliver. Landry was sentenced to three years and four months, and Lane received a five-year term.

Debbie Bjerk, Christian Bjerk’s mother, called the group “a pack of wolves” who cared more about drugs and their own self-preservation than about saving her son when he overdosed. She said the group fed her son the drugs at a house party, then kicked him out when he began to show overdose symptoms, leaving him to die on the sidewalk just one door down.

“The defendant carelessly handed my son a death sentence, and my family a life sentence” of grieving for him, Bjerk said.

Her husband, Christian Bjerk’s father, also asked the judge for a lengthy sentence for Budge.

Budge’s parents asked Erickson for a reduced sentence, saying their son has matured in jail and is turning his life around.

“I’m really not the same guy now that I used to be there,” said Budge, adding that his remorse led him to realize he was on borrowed time, after the deaths of the two others.

“This is, in fact, stolen time. I have taken it from people who probably could have used it better than I could,” he said.

Erickson also asked people in the courtroom to intervene in the lives of anyone using drugs, using the tragedy of the case as a reminder.

“This case is different because people died immediately,” he said. “(But) I see people giving away their lives, day after day, year after year.”