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The young woman standing before Scott County District Judge Rex Stacey resembled his late daughter, Anna.

She's artistic. She grew up in the suburbs. She made the catastrophic decision to try heroin.

Stacey's daughter died from an overdose six years ago, but Sydney Kolnberger survives.

Stacey, 64, watched proudly as Kolnberger, of South St. Paul, celebrated a year of sobriety in a packed courtroom last week.

"Heroin doesn't discriminate," Stacey said in an interview. "There are a lot of suburban kids using heroin."

Scott County's first drug treatment court, which launched this month, is an attempt to tackle the drug crisis plaguing addicts, their loved ones and the public officials trying to help them.

Kolnberger's recovery "showed what success looked like," Stacey said. "She was damn near death, real lucky to be alive."

Not Anna, whose name is tattooed across a heart on the judge's right shoulder.

Stacey was in court when he received a call in 2010 that his only daughter had been hospitalized for an overdose after a Halloween party. The judge doubts she used heroin for more than a week, but it had choked off the oxygen to her brain.

"Is there any part of me I can give Anna?" Stacey recalls asking the doctors at Hennepin County Medical Center. "Can you take me, and save Anna?"

They could not. Anna died at the tender age of 20.

The number of felony drug cases nearly doubled from 772 in 2010 to 1,366 in 2015 in the First Judicial District, which covers Carver, Dakota, Goodhue, Le Sueur, McLeod, Scott and Sibley counties.

Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen wants an alternative to jailing drug users. Developers are looking to build the county's first residential treatment center for substance abusers in Savage. Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate started offering "scholarships" last spring for offenders who seek treatment.

"We lock way too many people up for things that we could deal with in the community," said Scott County Commissioner Gary Shelton.

A possible fix

Stacey and his colleague District Judge Chris Wilton already had been running a quasi-drug court for about four years, before securing $950,000 in funding this year from the federal government and County Board. They'd stack their calendars with extra review hearings to see if these lawbreakers — some in the throes of withdrawals, some a heartbeat away from a fatal overdose — wanted to change their lives. They'd remind them that an authority figure cares and ask about their relationships, work, school and goals. They wanted to know: Are you getting out of 'The Life'?

Wilton said he and Stacey realized that they had to do something different.

"I could keep locking these young ladies and young men up, but they just get out and keep using," he said.

Some of these addicts might overcome their drug use, Stacey thought, even if Anna could not.

So he and Wilton waged a campaign to launch the drug court.

"The underlying tenet," Stacey says, "is to make a connection."

Stacey's second wife and law clerk, Deb Stacey, said the drug court is the judge's way of trying to help addicts "so that their parents don't have to suffer the loss that he did."

A mission evolves

Rex Stacey majored in psychology and English at St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota, then spent a year after graduation working at a Catholic charity for children. After meeting some law students he decided to become a lawyer himself.

"I really had no other prospects," Stacey joked.

At his first firm in Hastings, he handled "whatever walked in the door," he said, but mostly family law cases. Then-Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican, appointed him to the bench in 1996.

Stacey rides to work from his home in Belle Plaine on his 2006 Harley Davidson Road King. In court, he's known for his casual demeanor. He has a soft voice and calls offenders by their first name — but he also has a temper.

The Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards admonished him two years ago for walking out during a trial. And last summer, it reprimanded him for making "accusatory, hostile and discourteous" comments to two litigants in separate cases.

"I speak very directly, very bluntly, to the point, and I crossed a line," Stacey said.

Even so, seeing his name on the court docket instills confidence for some defendants facing drug charges. They know of his daughter's death and expect that he will understand their addiction.

Although not religious, Stacey is active with Minnesota Teen and Adult Challenge, a Christian-based treatment program with five centers across the state.

"If you do drugs in Scott County, you know about Judge Stacey," said Katie Kollasch, 27, of Shakopee, who is seven months clean at one center.

Natalie Daher • 612-673-1775