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Authorities trying to end a string of heroin overdoses in Northfield have filed drug charges against eight people and are looking into the potential of more serious charges against leaders of the drug ring, Rice County Sheriff Richard Cook said Friday evening.

According to a criminal complaint filed by the Rice County attorney's office this week, one of the accused drug dealers had bragged that his heroin was so pure that he had to revive customers after they used it.

Nobody has been charged yet in connection with the six drug deaths since 2006, but every fatal overdose is now under scrutiny, the sheriff said.

"We're looking at the connections between the overdoses, the fatalities, and all the people we know were involved in the traffic of heroin in Northfield," Cook said.

In 2007, then-Police Chief Gary Smith ignited a political firestorm when he charged that up to 250 local youths were engaged in widespread heroin use, leading to a spike in other crimes, including thefts and burglaries.

Other community leaders reacted with disbelief and anger, and two weeks after that Smith began a medical leave that ended five months later when he accepted a job in Kansas.

Cook said Friday that a drug task force believes there are only about 15 to 20 regular heroin users in Northfield and that there's no evidence of any dealing in the local high schools or colleges.

On Friday night, Smith stood by his earlier estimates and said that while he was glad to hear of the arrests he was saddened by the ongoing string of fatal overdoses. The most recent death was in August.

Preventing more drug deaths also was the motivating factor in this week's charges, Cook said.

Arrests last weekend

The ring was busted after a Rice County drug task force got an "in" into the group and investigated for about six weeks, culminating in arrests last weekend, the sheriff said.

The investigators forwarded recommendations for charges as quickly as possible to prevent more overdoses. Otherwise, they could have waited and arrested more people for aiding and abetting the drug trafficking, Cook said.

A recommendation to file charges as serious as homicide or manslaughter against those who supplied the heroin to overdose victims could be forwarded to the Rice County attorney's office if enough evidence is found, he said.

"Depending on the end result of our investigation, there could be that potential," Cook said. "I'm not sure what the county attorney would charge if there is a link, but we're definitely looking into that possibility."

The suspected ring leaders are Travis Roy Peterson, 19, of Northfield, who allegedly told a police informant that he had resuscitated users who overdosed in front of him, and John Blaze Frank, 19, of Faribault.

Peterson faces four felony drug counts, including sales and possession with intent to sell, and also conspiring to use a juvenile in drug sales.

Frank faces six counts of narcotics sales.

Also charged were Alexander B. Benson, 20; Lucas P. Benson, 19, Edina; Jacob A. DeMann, 21, Dundas; John S. Hanks, 21, Northfield; Patience C. Stopke-Huisentruitt, 18, Farmington, and a 17-year-old boy whose name was not released because he's being charged as a juvenile.

Peterson, Frank, Hanks and Alexander Benson remained in custody Friday; the other adults were released after posting bail. No information was available about the 17-year-old.

Confidential informant

Surreptitious recordings of Peterson captured him warning a confidential informant that the heroin being sold was so potent that the user had to be careful to not overdose. Many of his customers had overdosed, and he had nearly overdosed himself, Peterson told the informant, according to charging documents filed by the Rice County attorney's office.

"There's been a lot of close calls," Peterson allegedly said on one tape, adding that he had "been able to bring 'em back to life."

Peterson also was recorded as saying he obtained the high-quality heroin from a Twin Cities dealer after it came in from Chicago, according to the court documents. He claimed that he would buy about $1,000 worth of heroin each day and would also sell it daily.

At that level of activity, Cook said, the heroin trafficking would have touched only a tiny fraction of Northfield's young people. There were two groups involved, one with people ages 18 to 21, and another with people 23 to 27 years old, he said. Some of them had been charged with burglaries and thefts, and those suspects had admitted they were doing it to get drug money.

"We made it a priority to interrupt this trade to start with," Cook said, and then help those who were using heroin to get treatment.

Joy Powell • 612-673-7750