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2015 story: A wake-up call: Father shares grief of daughter's loss at Washington County drug-abuse forum

Tom Fitzgerald’s daughter Tara died last year after ingesting a synthetic drug called 25i-NBOMe. He spoke at an anti-drug community forum March 26 at Woodbury High School. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)

Cops and addicts shared the stage Thursday at the Woodbury High School auditorium.

Each, in their own way, told the audience of about 200 to wake up and smell the pot smoke.

Drugs — prescription painkillers, heroin and synthetic hallcinogens — are poisoning the youth of south Washington County. And many who buy and use them are hiding in plain sight.

Thursday’s “United We Stand” meeting was the first in a series of upcoming community forums intended to address what some are calling a public health crisis. A second forum is scheduled for April 2 at Park High School in Cottage Grove. Similar forums were held last year in Stillwater and Mahtomedi.

Recovering heroin addict Bailey Moon, 27, talked of living a double life while attending Woodbury High School. While getting good grades and playing three sports, she was drinking and using drugs. She had an abortion at 18 and relapsed at least three times before getting clean.

Mike Benson of the Washington County Drug Task Force described a recent seizure of drugs he said were destined for schools in south Washington County: butane hash oil, Molly, MDMA, cocaine, and 25i-NBOMe, one of several synthetic forms of “acid.”

The evening’s most shattering anti-drug message came from the father of a Woodbury teen who died last year after ingesting a synthetic drug.

Tom Fitzgerald described the desolation and outrage at losing his daughter, Tara, who was a junior at Woodbury High School.

Fitzgerald, 17, died Jan. 11, 2014, after swallowing a tab of 25i-NBOMe during a sleepover with friends at her own home.  

“This loss has devastated our lives,” her father said. “We struggle to make sense of how it happened to Tara. Those who have not experienced it cannot know the depth of our grief.”

If anything could be more crushing than losing a daughter, he said, it was the knowledge that her death might have been prevented. Tara first began having seizures sometime after midnight. Instead of calling 911, one of her friends called another girl to tell her what was happening. Two adults also were contacted separately by phone and apprised of the situation.

None of them called 911, Fitzgerald said.

Thinking that Tara was sleeping in, Fitzgerald said he and his wife went to their younger daughter’s basketball game. That’s where he got the call.

“One devastating mistake does not define Tara’s life,” he said. “It took her life.”

At a recent sentencing of one of the Woodbury High School students charged in Tara’s death, Fitzgerald said he had to listen as the boy’s mother extolled her son’s virtues to the judge.

“I question the compassion of a person who praises the character of someone who sells a drug that will kill someone — Tara,” Fitzgerald said.

He said they did everything they could to keep their daughter safe. They checked her text messages and vetted her friends. He said that she assured her dad she wouldn’t do drugs because, she said, “Drugs are for losers.”

“Please don’t make the mistake of thinking it won’t happen to your child,” he said.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput helped prosecute the two adults and three juveniles who were charged in connection with Tara’s death. While they aggressively pursued the case to send a message to drug dealers, he said they weren't out to criminalize kids who were caught using drugs.

He urged parents to exercise tough love and to “call the cops” if they suspected their child was taking drugs. If they were first-time offenders they will be given the chance to avoid a felony conviction by entering rehabilitation, he said.

“If they don’t have a criminal record, we’re not going to give them one with this,” he said.

He reminded the audience that 911 callers who report a drug overdose are now immune from arrest, thanks to “Steve’s Law,” which the Minnesota Legislature passed last year.

“We need your help,” he said. “We cannot prosecute our way out of this problem. If we could, we’d be up all night.”

Benson, of the Washington County Drug Task Force, said parents could call them if they suspected their child was hiding drugs in their bedroom. He said they would dispatch a detective and their drug-sniffing dog, Rumble, to sniff around.  

“You may have searched that room three times,” he said. “But believe me, if something is there, she will find it.”

The forum also featured Brian Mueller, head of investigations for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office; Washington County Sheriff William Hutton, Woodbury Police Capt. Steve Wills and Adam Pederson, a prevention specialist with the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge. Speakers also included a Woodbury High School resource officer and Mike Dwyer, a recovering addict who works at Know the Truth.

Pederson urged parents to lock up or dispose of pills in their medicine cabinet to prevent possible pilfering by their children. Parents, he said, should be alert for telltale signs that their children may be using drugs: more requests to borrow money, increasing secretiveness or a drop in grades at school.

They partnered with Washington County to create the United We Stand Series last year.

Their teen-specific program, Know the Truth, helps to spread the word about the dangers of substance abuse.

The United We Stand series is presented by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, the Washington County Attorney’s Office, the Washington County Department of Public Health and Environment, Connect, and Know the Truth.

Meetings are scheduled for April 2 at Park High School in Cottage Grove and April 9 at Tartan High School in Oakdale. Each forum runs 7-8:30 p.m.

Tom Fitzgerald will speak at the Park High School forum.
For more information, visit www.knowthetruthmn.org

 Editor's note: This story is form March 2015. 
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