Final defendant in vast synthetic drug case gets 20-year prison term
FARGO - The last defendant in a synthetic drug conspiracy case was sentenced Thursday in federal district court in Fargo to 20 years and six months in prison in what federal district Judge Ralph Erickson said was “one of the saddest, if not the saddest, cases this court has seen in 20 years.”
Charles William Carlton, 29, of Texas, pleaded guilty in March to distributing controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death.
The drug charges against Carlton and 14 others stemmed from the deaths of two Grand Forks-area teens who died from taking synthetic hallucinogens within days of one another in June 2012.
Carlton founded the Houston-based online company Motion Resources, which distributed synthetic drugs across the country for about a year, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers, who prosecuted the case.
The drugs were imported from overseas, including from Europe, Canada and China.
Myers underscored the scope of the drug conspiracy, which he said touched every state.
“They sold all over the U.S. to hundreds of people,” he said in court proceedings Thursday. “This defendant is the source of supply. He’s the one that put (the drugs) in the stream of commerce.”
Myers said the venture was a “profit-driven business” meant to “skirt the law,” and that Carlton had signed papers to change the name of the business after receiving news of the two teens’ deaths in an attempt to hide his tracks.
Different kind of dealer
Alexander Reichert, Carlton’s defense attorney, said in court Thursday that one of Carlton’s conspirators had pushed him into continuing business after the teens’ deaths and that Carlton had tried to screen purchasers to keep the drugs out of the wrong hands.
“That is a red herring,” said Judge Erickson before sentencing Carlton. “This was not a business that got out of control. It was designed to skirt the law.”
Erickson said if the business had been legitimate, there would have been legitimate sales to pharmaceutical companies, legitimate advertising and legitimate mass marketing efforts.
Most of the evidence against Carlton has not been disclosed, as most of the court records are sealed.
Erickson also said the case was unique in that Carlton did not embody the typical drug dealer — the hopeless addict who supports his addiction by dealing.
Rather, Erickson said, Carlton was the other kind of drug dealer.
“They’re people who are entrepreneurial. There’s almost always very bright. They’re almost always people who can give back to their community,” he said. “Those are the people who are most morally culpable because it’s based in greed.”
“It’s a very Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of thing,” he said, adding that Carlton had described himself as a “connoisseur of hallucinogens.”
Erickson also underscored the seriousness of the case, saying, “People who sell drugs are the merchants of death.”
The gravity of the case was reflected in the sentence handed down, which was the longest out of any of the 15 involved in the conspiracy.
Myers said he was pleased with the sentence.
“It will provide a measure of justice to the victims,” he said, referring to the families of the two teens.
Christian Bjerk, 18, of Grand Forks, was one of the teens who died after taking a new synthetic drug in June 2012, known as 2CI-NBOMe, which at the time was not a controlled substance under state law. He was found dead on a sidewalk June 11 with bruising and marks on his face.
“My son was killed by a poison,” his mother, Debbie Bjerk, said in a statement before the court Thursday, describing the accelerated heart rate, rising body temperature and spiking blood pressure that the drug causes. “There are no human words that can express our loss.”
Two days after Bjerk’s body was found, Elijah Stai, 17, of East Grand Forks, Minn., died of a drug overdose at Altru Hospital.
Three others, including a 15-year-old boy, were also hospitalized in Grand Forks after taking the synthetic drug that June.
The Bjerks have since campaigned for tighter restrictions on synthetic drugs, speaking before state legislators and the state’s pharmacy board.
“We effectively got North Dakota law to follow the federal law,” said father Keith Bjerk in a previous interview.
In late 2012, the state Board of Pharmacy banned a host of synthetic drugs previously not covered by the law.
The Bjerks also formed the Christian Allen Bjerk Memorial Fund to raise awareness of the threat of synthetic drugs.
Tara Fitzgerald, a Woodbury, Minn., teen, died in January after ingesting what she thought was LSD, but which turned out to be the same synthetic drug that killed Bjerk and Stai.
Before his sentence was read Thursday, Carlton turned to Bjerk’s parents, who broke into tears periodically during the proceedings, and apologized.
“If I could turn back the hands of time, I would,” he said. “I have two children of my own, and what happened to your children is my greatest fear.”
Carlton was also convicted of introducing and delivering misbranded drugs and money laundering.