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The three 17-year-old Woodbury High School students were in trouble. Big trouble.

They'd been charged with murder for buying and selling a synthetic drug that caused the overdose death of a classmate, and if convicted, could have spent years in prison.

But this winter, Washington County prosecutors dismissed the murder charges in favor of plea agreements, electing instead to convict the teenagers on lesser, felony drug charges.

The reason? There's hope for them, prosecutors said.

"Sometimes we deal with hardened defendants," said Kevin Mueller, the assistant Washington County attorney who prosecuted the cases. "These kids were not."

The county's decision to back off the murder charges didn't come without angst. But the original charges raised questions about how severely the teens should be punished, and whether there was hope they could grow into law-abiding adults who someday would speak out against the dangers of drugs and drug dealing.

"Do you want to see these kids in prison?" said Tony Zdroik, juvenile division chief for the county attorney's office. "Kids who have a potential and a future to contribute to society?"

Even the parents of the 17-year-old victim, Tara Fitzgerald, were conflicted when considering the teens' fate. Their daughter had died a horrible death, robbing them of her loving, artistic life. Yet her three classmates weren't drug manufacturers or pushers, but instead, were described in court as naive and impressionable.

"As the parent of a teen, I had empathy for these kids," Tom Fitzgerald said, drawing a line between them and two adult defendants. "They certainly weren't full-fledged drug dealers, No. 1, and their intent was not to harm anybody."

Deadly chemical

Tara Fitzgerald was midway through her junior year at Woodbury High School when she opened a tinfoil envelope and placed a tiny tab of pink paper on her tongue. After her death on Jan. 11, 2014, it was discovered she had been told it was LSD — also an illegal drug — but instead it was coated with a deadly chemical known as 25i-NBOMe.

Months later, amid much fanfare at a news conference, the Washington County attorney's office filed third-degree murder charges against two 19-year-old men farther up the drug-selling chain, and against Sydney Claire Johnson, Alistair Curtis Berg and Brian Philip Norlander, all 17. Johnson was a senior at Woodbury High; Berg and Norlander juniors.

Evidence included thousands of text messages linking the defendants and tracking the fatal dose. It originated with Alexander Lee Claussen, 19, who manufactured 25i-NBOMe in a home laboratory in St. Cloud. Claussen sold it to Cole Alexander Matenaer, a 19-year-old Woodbury drug dealer, who sold it to Johnson, who sold it to Berg, who sold it to Norlander.

Mueller said the law calls for murder charges against anyone who sells controlled substances that result in death.

But defense attorney Tina Appleby, who represented Norlander in court, said murder allegations against the younger defendants "were probably charged to catch everybody's attention, and certainly did."

At the news conference announcing the charges, County Attorney Pete Orput, Sheriff Bill Hutton, Woodbury Police Chief Lee Vague and other investigators and prosecutors condemned a youth drug culture enabled through swift exchanges on social media.

Since 2011, Washington County has averaged 15 drug overdose deaths a year — many of them young adults. Hundreds more people who overdosed were saved after medical intervention, Orput said recently.

"We wanted to make a point right away that this is serious," Zdroik said recently. "We had a young lady who died, we had a number of young adults in this, and that's where the [murder] charges came from."

Difficult cases

Orput and his prosecutors said that Johnson, Berg and Norlander began cooperating with investigators right away, in large part because of overwhelming evidence against them. They knew less of the drug trade, and of the potential consequences, than the adults. The three also helped map out what prosecutors wanted to know — the chain of sales.

While Johnson was "a pipeline in the high school" for drugs, she nevertheless was far less sophisticated about buying and selling than the adults, Mueller said. Berg was considered impressionable, unsure of what to do with doses he bought before selling them to Norlander. All expressed remorse for Fitzgerald's death.

Under terms of the plea deals, the murder charges were dropped in exchange for guilty pleas to a second felony charge — sale of a synthetic drug to a minor. Instead of going to prison, each defendant will spend weekends in jail, pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution, and perform community service. Judges can send them to prison, however, if they violate probation before turning 21.

Tom Fitzgerald said recently he wasn't surprised when prosecutors revealed their intentions to dismiss the more serious charges.

"Maybe in the future they can make something positive of their lives and it will benefit society," he said of the three teens. "I don't want to ruin someone else's life for a single mistake they had done that had tragic unexpected consequences."

In court, Tom Fitzgerald spoke of his family's pain in knowing teenagers responsible for his daughter's death would grow into adulthood and could marry and have children — but Tara never would. He described Tara as intellectually curious, a talented artist who loved to draw and paint, a voracious reader immersed in several books at once, and a creative musician who taught herself guitar, piano, harmonica and drums. She also wrote songs.

Her death remains "completely devastating" and he warns parents to guard against drug dealing — even when kids deny being involved. The Fitzgeralds have one other child, Caitlin. "We're still suffering through waking up and looking at each other and saying, 'Our baby, she is supposed to be here.' It's four people in our family, not three."

Punishment comes in many forms, Appleby said, including grief and regret.

Norlander, who carried a 4.0 grade-point average and was captain of the high school football team, now lives with knowing that he sold Tara, for $10, the fatal dose of the hallucinogenic drug. "Both parties acted out of complete impulse and ignorance," Appleby said of the transaction. "Brian Norlander regarded Tara Fitzgerald as his closest friend. He regarded her as a confidante. He loved her as a sister. I can't imagine that Tara would have ever wanted Brian to be branded a murderer."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037