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'Extremely dangerous' tainted drugs on Fargo streets believed connected to overdose deaths

FARGO --Three overdose deaths in one week, possibly related to dangerous fentanyl-laced heroin, have prompted a coordinated area law enforcement response, with dire warnings to the public and a round of arrests of suspected suppliers.

FARGO --Three overdose deaths in one week, possibly related to dangerous fentanyl-laced heroin, have prompted a coordinated area law enforcement response, with dire warnings to the public and a round of arrests of suspected suppliers.

In a news conference at noon on Sunday, the heads of multiple local law enforcement agencies made pleas for public vigilance as an uptick of illicit opiate overdoses is being seen around the region, Fargo Police Chief David Todd said.

"What happens in any one of our cities, really happens to us as a community as a whole and we have to tackle this issue together," Todd said.

Todd announced that arrests of four suspected heroin suppliers were made at a south Fargo hotel Sunday morning, suspects Todd believes are connected to at least one overdose death on Saturday morning.

He said there may be other people who received the same drugs in the area.

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"It could be extremely dangerous," Todd said of the tainted narcotics. "I don't want to have any more deaths out there."

The suspected heroin could be laced with fentanyl, Todd said, which can be 40-50 times more potent than pure heroin and can be absorbed through the skin in some cases.

Because toxicology tests can take weeks, police couldn't say for certain what substances have been found to be mixed in with the heroin.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opiate used to treat severe pain, according to the National Institutes of Health, and, when mixed with street drugs in powder form, can amplify their potency and cause breathing problems, unconsciousness, coma or death.

Opiates can include heroin, opium, fentanyl, hydrocodone and other substances.

Twin Cities-linked suppliers arrested

Chief Todd said police got word of possible heroin suppliers renting a room at a south Fargo hotel that were believed to be involved in the recent overdoses.

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Three men were arrested in the parking lot of the Residence Inn at 4335 23rd Ave. S. in Fargo around 6:30 a.m. Sunday. A search warrant was executed on a hotel room, where a woman was arrested and about a half ounce of suspected heroin and a small amount of marijuana were seized.

A small child who was also inside the room was taken into protective custody, Todd said.

Arrested were:

• Jerrell Washington, 24: Accused of heroin possession with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and child neglect and abuse.

• Marcel Washington, 25: Accused of giving false information to law enforcement, marijuana possession, drug paraphernalia and an outstanding warrant.

• Reginald Washington, 24: Accused of heroin possession with intent to distribute, giving false information to law enforcement and possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

• Heather Rouzier, 30: Accused of heroin possession with intent to distribute and child neglect and abuse.

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At least two of those arrested have ties to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, said Fargo Police Sgt. Shannon Ruziska, the lieutenant in charge of narcotics investigation for the department.

Rusizka said police believe "a lot" of the opiates coming into the Fargo-Moorhead area are "channeling through" the Twin Cities before they get here.

Rusizka said Fargo police previously hadn't found heroin with an additive in the area.

Overdoses leave several dead

The arrests come after an alarming surge in overdose deaths in Fargo in just the past week. Police said investigators are still working to determine if the cases are related.

According to police, the following overdose cases left three people dead and two injured:

• March 6: John Weed, 37, died from a suspected opioid overdose in Fargo.

• March 6: Tyson Chaney, 24, died from an opiate overdose in Fargo.

• March 8: Suspected non-fatal opiate overdose in Dilworth.

• March 9: Suspected non-fatal opiate overdose in Fargo.

• March 12: Lucas Anderson, 26, died from an opiate overdose in Fargo.

"There's no such thing as good heroin, it's all bad. There's no such thing as a good batch, it's all bad stuff. Heroin can be extremely deadly, but if it has something in it ... to make it even stronger, it can be extremely deadly," Todd said.

For family members of those who use illegal drugs like opiates, Todd said they should watch them for breathing difficulties, incoherence or unconsciousness, signs that emergency medical treatment is needed.

"If you see what you suspect is heroin or an opiate derivative, do not touch it. Call us to handle it," Todd said.

Growing regional problem

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said his department had also dealt with recent overdoses, two of which were non-fatal. The victims were saved by Narcan, a nasal spray for the emergency treatment of opioid overdoses.

Ebinger said his department is working backward to try to determine the source of the drugs and see if there is a tie-in to the Fargo cases.

"We are reviewing our cases at this point," Ebinger said.

In early September 2015, 21-year-old Jordan Larry died as of a result of heroin use in Moorhead. Family members said at the time they believed he aspirated while administering heroin, meaning he breathed vomit into his lungs. Ebinger said Larry's case was likely not related to the recent overdoses.

Ebinger made a plea for those in the grips of drug use and addiction to seek help, even if they might be apprehensive in dealing with police.

"We don't have a lot of credibility with people who have an addiction, they don't want to listen to the police and they don't want to talk to the police," Ebinger said.

"If you're going to get out of drug use and try to deal with your addiction, now is a good time to do it. If not, please monitor them and get them the medical help they need."

Ebinger said Chief Todd called him Saturday and said "we need to make the public aware of this as quickly as possible."

West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan said he wasn't aware of any recent overdoses in his city related to those in Fargo, but said a fatal overdose happened in a West Fargo motel in 2015.

Reitan, citing information from a "local emergency room," said that since October 2015 and until just recently, there were dozens of reported overdoses for various substances, including 11 heroin overdoses that were not fatal.

"We need to make sure that the community steps up" and reports the activity, either overdoses or drug activity, to their local law enforcement agencies, he said.


Life-saving measures available

Some police departments around the country have begun to carry Narcan, the nasal spray used to treat overdoses. Locally, paramedics with F-M Ambulance carry the drug, but police do not.

Asked why officers don't carry the drug to help with suspected overdoses, police cited concerns with carrying it in their patrol vehicles. The cold weather can interfere with Narcan's efficacy.

Immediate medical treatment is provided by local hospitals, police said, and Moorhead's Chief Ebinger cited paramedics' speedy response that resulted in lives saved, calling it "rather remarkable."

But Ebinger said that the region is under-prepared for drug rehab and mental health care.

"We've got a real problem on our hands," Ebinger said.

Anyone with information about the incidents or opiate distribution in the area can call the Fargo Police tip line at (701) 241-5777 or their local law enforcement agency.

Joining Todd, Ruziska, Reitan and Ebinger at the news conference were Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist, Cass County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Rick Majerus, and Moorhead Police Lt. Tory Jacobson.

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