OWATONNA — Methamphetamine abuse often brings devastating consequences for the user. The black market that transports, distributes and profits off of methamphetamine can have ugly consequences of its own.
Meth is the most common “hard” drug seen by police in Steele County (the most common narcotic overall is marijuana) can sell for $100 per gram or more. In 2014, for example, Steele County saw 104 narcotics arrests, including 63 for marijuana and 33 for “other,” which includes meth, far outstripping opioids and synthetic drugs, according to crime data supplied by Owatonna Police Chief Keith Hiller.
That demand brings a constant stream of meth suppliers despite potential prison sentences of 30 years or more for traffickers and sellers. Commander Jason Petterson of the South Central Drug Investigations Unit said that in the second quarter of 2016 alone, his task force seized 14 pounds of methamphetamine across its four-county service area.
That drug trade is now in the spotlight after the June murder of Richard Jurgensen, 22, of Medford, who prosecutors believe was killed because of the mistaken belief that he provided information to police leading to a large narcotics arrest. Cyrus Trevino, 24, of Owatonna and Gerald Blevins, 36, of Bemidji, have been charged in his death.
“I think unfortunately, it’s been there for decades,” Hiller said. “It’s just most recently, when you see a tragedy like a homicide that puts a nasty face on the drug abuse within our communities … we struggle sometimes communicating the devastation that drugs play on our families within our communities, and we also struggle with the community’s perception that there really isn’t a whole lot of harm that goes along with drug use.”
Where it comes from
According to prosecutors, Trevino blamed Jurgensen for the arrest of his uncle Jeremy Trevino of Dallas, who was charged last week along with Cecilia Boyd of Owatonna after he allegedly brought 2.2 pounds of methamphetamine to Owatonna on a trip north from Texas. But that’s far from the only route law enforcement officials have seen meth travel.
“I think it depends on the day of the week and the month of the year,” Hiller said. “I think it can come from the metro area, I think it can come from the Chicago area, I think it can come across the Mexican border.” (The west coast as well, Petterson noted.) “I think people are resourceful in procuring the drugs.”
Although police regularly bust both regular users and traffickers, Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh said the potential rewards continue enticing people into the market.
“The problem right now is still a demand problem. There is such an appetite for methamphetamine, and not just in Steele County but in Minnesota, that it’s a very lucrative business and people are willing to take a lot of risks to bring it into the state because there’s a lot of money to be made,” he said. “Whoever brings it in, we take off some larger dealers and it seems the vacuum is filled pretty quickly by other distributors who want to be part of the business.”
The one place police don’t see a lot of meth coming from, they say, is locally. It’s rare for police these days to find a “Breaking Bad”-style home meth lab.
“I do know that the home-grown type of manufacturing locally has really dried up, and that’s mostly due to a simple step of making pseudoephedrine harder to get,” McIntosh said. “Most of it is being imported from elsewhere.”
And while many drugs are the product of large criminal organizations, those groups usually seem to work through local suppliers, McIntosh said.
“The people who are stopped in the interstate and have a quantity of meth on them are usually pretty low-level actors and are doing the bidding for someone else,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of the big players in random traffic stops.”
Even so, the high rewards and clandestine nature of the drug trade can spill into violence.
“If for example someone gets their drugs through some sort of international cartel, they’re associated,” McIntosh said. “I guess the question is how far they’ll go to protect the business and right a perceived wrong in the business.”
McIntosh said crimes over drug profits or distribution aren’t unheard of in Steele County, although the Jurgensen homicide is much more extreme than other recent cases.
“There’s been some assaults, some robberies, things like that. Nothing to the extent of the Jurgensen case, but I think a lot of those crimes go unreported, too,” he said. “If both sides are involved in the trade, so to speak, it might not be something they want law enforcement involved in.”
Hiller said conflict between organized groups over the drug trade appears rare.
“I think it would be fair to say we don’t have a drug and/or gang war that has been in existence in our community in a prevalent manner in recent decades,” he said. “I think there are organized groups in the drug trade, but the outward violence that draws attention to their criminal behavior, we haven’t seen for as long as I can remember.”
Many drug investigations rely heavily on confidential informants, either to supply information about drug transactions or to conduct controlled buys from suspected dealers. A tip from an informant led to Jeremy Trevino’s arrest, although police have said elsewhere that Jurgensen was not an informant, and prosecutors have already filed notice that they will not identify the informant or informants in the case prior to trial.
“We have to have an identified risk of harm to that individual, or other investigations will be compromised,” McIntosh said. “The high majority of those cases, we disclose witnesses right away. This case, obviously, is different.”
McIntosh said officials are careful to be upfront with potential informants about what they are asked to do.
“If it’s more of a risk than they’re willing to take, they don’t do it,” he said. “Some have their own charges, to be sure. Some have been in the business and are just sick of it, some happen on some information … We expect honesty from them, we give them honesty.”
Hiller said police make every effort to ensure the safety of informants.
“We always revisit and revise policy to maintain a level of safety for all parties involved for criminal investigations,” Hiller said. “If anyone thinks we would say anything to compromise an informant, to get any amount of drugs off the street, they are sadly mistaken. We value all life.”
How to stop the trade
Police admit meth is prevalent in the community despite their best efforts.
“No matter how much we take, there’s probably twice as much coming in,” Petterson said.
McIntosh said there’s more hope to address the issue from the demand side, by keeping people off meth and helping those that are addicted get sober. He said recent research shows that many people using meth have underlying mental illnesses or past childhood trauma that can be addressed in other, healthier ways.
“Strange as it sounds, they are self-medicating with methamphetamine,” he said.
Efforts to provide earlier, better treatment for these issues can keep vulnerable people from turning to drugs, he said, and provide better options for those already addicted. He pointed in particular to a dual-treatment program at South Central Human Relations Center specializing in addressing co-occurring mental health and chemical dependency issues.
The Steele Waseca Drug Court is another program that aims to tackle the underlying issues leading to addiction.
“One of the things I’ve learned from [Drug Court] is the importance of understanding what addiction is, in that addiction can’t be treated when there’s other issues that need to be treated first,” Petterson said. “You can’t just treat the addiction and ignore the mental health side of things.”
McIntosh said he hopes further efforts along those lines can reduce the demand for methamphetamine, and by extension, the drug trade and the crime it brings with it.
“That’s where the current state of the art is going,” he said. “That’s where we’re at here, not perfect by any means, but we’re trying to be smarter about both chemical and mental health in the criminal justice system.”