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First defendant in synthetic drug case that killed PR teen sentenced to 4 years

William Joseph Fox

FARGO -- On Monday in federal court here, U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson sentenced the first of nine people who have pleaded guilty in a Grand Forks-based synthetic drug ring blamed for killing two teenagers.

William Joseph Fox received a sentence of four years in federal prison for his admitted role in the crime.

The ruling gives a preview of what other defendants in the case might face in upcoming sentences, as soon as next week.

Fox, 24, was the roommate of Andrew Spofford, 22, the former UND student who admitted being the "hobby chemist" who ordered chemicals from overseas to make hallucinogens, including "analogues," which are chemically-similar versions of illegal drugs.

The two lived at 2200 4th Ave. N. in Grand Forks, where Spofford cooked and packaged his product. They were arrested in June.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers told Erickson that Fox did not play a central role in the drug conspiracy and cooperated early in the federal investigation, helping investigators charge several others.

Fox told the judge he has had a lifetime of abusing alcohol and drugs and wants to get his life straight during his prison term, including going through a treatment program that could shorten his sentence.

He faced a drug conspiracy charge with a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $2 million fine; federal guidelines indicated a sentence of as much as nine years would be recommended, based on the facts of his admitted crime and the amount of drugs involved.

But Myers, in agreement with Fox's attorney, Patrick Rosenquist, said Fox's difficult life, mental health problems and "substantial assistance" in the case, mitigated against his criminal history, including a methamphetamine felony conviction in Grand Forks in 2008.

According to a document filed by Rosenquist, Fox had a troubled childhood in which his parents abused drugs and broke the law. His mother died of a drug overdose when he was 11 and his father took his own life shortly after Fox, at 18, moved to North Dakota to live with him, Rosenquist said. Fox has mental health problems and was put on a suicide watch while in the Grand Forks County jail in recent months, said Rosenquist in seeking medications and an evaluation for his client last month.

Fox regrets the deaths and injuries caused by the hallucinogens, Rosenquist said.

On June 11, drugs made by Spofford led to the death of Christian Bjerk, 18, in Grand Forks, and the hospitalization of a 15-year-old boy, Myers said. On June 13, Elijah Stai, 17, ingested a hallucinogen made by Spofford and quickly went into a coma in East Grand Forks, dying June 15 in Altru Hospital.

It appears the case is quickly unfolding.

Next week, Adam Budge, 19, East Grand Forks, and Wesley Sweeney, 18, of Manvel, N.D. -- who have pled guilty to more serious charges than Fox -- are scheduled to be sentenced. Their sentencing, however, might be postponed, Myers said.

Both face maximum sentences of life in prison and mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years, as well as a fine of $1 million after admitting their actions led to the deaths and injuries of those who took the drugs.

Under federal plea deals, it's possible to get less than the mandatory minimum on a charge.

Budge admitted stealing and buying hallucinogens from Spofford, mixing them into chocolate bars and giving them to Stai.

Sweeney admitted buying hallucinogens from Budge -- who had obtained them from Spofford -- and providing them to Bjerk and the 15-year-old boy.

Also due for sentencing next week in the case is Ronald Norling III, arrested last spring north of Grand Forks in possession of drugs and other materials traced back to Spofford.

Charged with similar crimes to Fox's, Norling faces a maximum sentence of 20 years. His attorney, Joseph Quinn, has argued for a sentence of two years, based on his cooperation and difficult life.

Judge Erickson agreed to Fox's request that he serve his four years in a low-security federal prison in Duluth, where Fox said he could benefit from educational and drug treatment programs.

Myers has charged 11 people in the conspiracy and says the investigation remains open.

Spofford, also facing a maximum sentence of life in prison, with a mandatory minimum of 20 years, has pleaded guilty, taking a deal with Myers, as have eight others.

Two men, Casey Rosen and Steven Bucher, have not taken plea deals yet and still are scheduled to go to trial.

Most of the 11 defendants were students at UND in recent years.