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Aunt of man sentenced in fentanyl overdoses, community leaders discuss what's been done about fentanyl in Grand Forks, and what's still left to do

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- David Todd Noye Jr. couldn't pack much for his flight to Michigan with his aunt and grandfather. He'd be staying for more than three years, but Noye only brought enough for a weekend visit.

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Jill Cormier talks about her nephew, David Todd Noye Jr., who was sentenced in January to three years and three months in prison for his role in a drug ring that resulted in the death of two people in Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- David Todd Noye Jr. couldn't pack much for his flight to Michigan with his aunt and grandfather. He'd be staying for more than three years, but Noye only brought enough for a weekend visit.

Noye's relatives took him to Chili's, where he ate ribs, one of his favorites, as his "last meal." That night, his aunt, Jill Cormier, stayed up late talking with Noye.

But there was a "lingering cloud" hovering over them, Cormier said.

The next day, Jan. 29, the family woke up and drove to the federal prison in Milan, Mich., where the three said their goodbyes and Noye, 19, surrendered himself into federal custody.

"I told him I would do anything to take his spot because I am just as guilty," she said of their meeting nearly two months ago.

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Cormier didn't hold the drugs herself, distribute or ingest them. But "just like the police officer, the counselor, the teacher, the church member, we all knew it was happening."

Noye, along with several others, pleaded guilty to a role in an international drug ring that bought and sold fentanyl over the Internet. The drugs were tied to the deaths of two Grand Forks men, which prompted a federal investigation called Operation Denial.

And while Grand Forks quickly emerged last year as the epicenter for the drug -- more than a dozen deaths examined by the Grand Forks County Coroner's Office since 2014 have been tied to fentanyl -- it's use has been widespread throughout the region as families, law enforcement and health practitioners look to address its toxic and dangerous nature.

Earlier this month, Fargo saw three overdose deaths in one week, possibly related to heroin laced with fentanyl, Fargo Police Chief David Todd said.

Minnesota state and local law enforcement held a news conference in Bemidji last week in light of seven people dead and more than a dozen hospitalized in recent weeks after using heroin suspected to be laced with fentanyl.

More than a year ago, Operation Denial began after the deaths of Evan Daniel Poitra and Bailey Evan Henke, who overdosed on fentanyl citrate, a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

The 19-year-old Poitra was found dead of an apparent drug overdose at his Grand Forks home July 16, 2014, while Henke, 18, died after overdosing Jan. 3, 2015, inside a Grand Forks apartment.

In addition to the criminal investigation, their deaths also prompted Grand Forks leaders to form an intercity committee last summer in an effort to fight fentanyl beyond the courtroom.

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That work has yielded results, but committee members and Cormier agree more can be done beyond criminal prosecution to stem the use of drugs. In Noye's case, he was friends with Henke and Poitra, the two who died from overdoses, and with two men who also were sentenced as part of Operation Denial: 20-year-old Joshua Tyler Fulp and 19-year-old Kain Daniel Schwandt.

"These were good boys who got caught up in something over their heads," Cormier said. "They were selling to support their habit. And I feel that we let them down. Our society, our community has let them down."

'A growing problem'

When news broke last year about the fatal fentanyl overdoses in Grand Forks, State's Attorney David Jones made some calls.

"Everybody recognized we had to do something," Jones said.

By late summer 2015, a committee of law enforcement, Altru representatives, people from the University of North Dakota, area schools, government leaders and other representatives throughout the area formed to combine their efforts.

"It's a community issue that's multifaceted and requires multiple agencies to pull together to address it," said Laurie Betting, UND associate vice president of health and wellness.

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The larger committee has various goals, such as gathering data, educating the community, opening up communication and looking at treatment options offered.

"Our biggest issue, and I think the success that we've had, is public awareness," Jones said.

The group's work has included a couple of public service announcements, including a recent video that panned across a living room with audio of people deciding what to do when someone overdosed on fentanyl.

This spring, the committee plans to release a documentary to local schools. The film will depict four families and their stories of dealing with fentanyl in the area.

"It's all our people," Jones said. "It's our folks. It's our victim families."
"If you can make it from the front to the end without getting an emotional connection, you should check for a pulse," Betting said.

Other committee members are working on pooling data to look at the scope of the fentanyl problem in Grand Forks and the impact, Debbie Swanson, public health director, said.

"It's a growing problem," Swanson said. "It's having an effect on law enforcement, health care systems, the child welfare system, to name a few."

Operation Denial

Court papers state the deaths of Henke and Poitra can be traced to a man named Brandon Corde Hubbard, 41, in Portland, Ore.

Through the "Dark Web," secure Internet sites often used for illegal activity, Hubbard imported $1.5 million worth of fentanyl citrate from China and Canada before distributing it by mail throughout the U.S., according to court papers.

One of the recipients was Ryan Jon Jensen, 20, in Grand Forks. From there, the fentanyl made its way around the city, later resulting in the deaths of the two Grand Forks residents.

Through Operation Denial, nine people have been charged in North Dakota and three more in Oregon. Early last week, Hubbard pleaded guilty in federal court for his role and he's scheduled to be sentenced June 26.

In addition to Noye, who received 39 months of prison time, others who have pleaded guilty and received federal prison sentences have been Jensen, 20 years; Fulp, 12 years; Schwandt, 3½ years; and Jameson Robert Sele, three years. There is no parole in the federal prison system, so inmates can only earn limited early release for good behavior.

The Grand Forks County Drug Task Force spearheaded Operation Denial, but the investigation spanned internationally. Earlier this year, 20 individuals from the investigation were honored for their "outstanding cooperative effort" with a national High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program award.

"This is the first time law enforcement in North Dakota has been recognized," U.S. Attorney Chris Myers said in announcing the awards. "The teamwork in this international investigation was extraordinary and undoubtedly saved lives."

The award recognized members of the local narcotics task force, Grand Forks Police Department, State's Attorney David Jones, Grand Forks Sheriff's Office and UND police, among others.

More to do

After indictments, sentencings and an award, fentanyl hasn't disappeared from Grand Forks.

"We realized that was just the tip of the iceberg," Swanson said.

Fentanyl is part of a bigger national issue of opioid and prescription drug abuse. "The difference was the lethality" of fentanyl, Jones said. An amount of fentanyl equal to three grains of salt can kill a person, according to Altru.

"We're still getting the fentanyl patch abuse cases," Jones said. "It just means our message just isn't getting where it should go."

"(Drugs) are not just going to disappear because five boys were sentenced to prison time," Cormier said. "It's going to stop when people stop using them. And the only way you're going to get someone off of the drugs is through treatment."

Treatment is something Altru has worked on before the intercity committee formed, and with the help of the committee, it's a focus going forward.

In addition to treating addiction, families of addicts need direction, Cormier said. Without support, families like Cormier's that "did everything that we could have" feel helpless, she said.

"All families can do is just sit there and hope that they get caught," Cormier said. "Because if not, they will die."

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