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As 17-year-old Tara Fitzgerald lay dying in the basement of her Minnesota home, her parents were asleep in their own bed not far away.
They had no way of knowing that Tara — their quirky, artistic, honor roll student daughter — had made a mistake that would cost her life.
All that Tom and Mai Fitzgerald knew was that Tara and a high school friend were having a sleepover in the basement. They heard the girls’ laughter drifting up before they went to bed, never realizing it was one of the last sounds they’d hear their daughter make.
By the next morning, Tara would be dead.
In the days and months that followed, police uncovered a terrifying trend among the community’s high school students, according to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Wednesdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Friends described Tara as an old soul, who was philosophical and always trying to understand more about how the world works. But there was another side to the teenager too. She loved to make people laugh, was passionate about drawing and music, and earned a high score on the ACT.
Her father said Tara could be a bit of a daredevil.
“Tara was a really energetic kid from a young age,” he said. “She liked to do skateboarding and the climbing walls.”
She was also often found in the basement of her Woodbury home practicing the guitar. Tara was drawn to ‘70s classic rock, like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Beatles.
It was a passion that would ultimately lead her to make a deadly choice. Tara, a typically clean-cut teen, wanted to try LSD like so many of the musicians she admired had once done. The sleepover seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“The main purpose of having the sleepover was to try it, to try the drug,” one of her friends told reporter Kate Snow.
But what Tara didn’t know as she happily smiled for the camera with a tablet on her tongue was that she wasn’t taking LSD that night. She was unwittingly taking something far deadlier: Police determined Tara died the morning of Jan. 11, 2014 from a synthetic drug known as 25i-NBOMe.
The teen had believed she was taking all the proper steps to stay safe. She and her high school friend had even arranged for another friend — who wasn’t at the home that night — to stand by in case they had any trouble or adverse reactions.
Initially, it seemed in video taken that night that Tara just seemed goofy and happy, but she was later lying unresponsive on the basement floor. Her friend never woke Tara’s parents, but did call that friend they had on standby, who came over the house and tried to help.
That teen told investigators she had sat with Tara, who had still been unresponsive, on the floor, stroking her hair and hoping that everything was going to be OK.
“She stays for a bit of time but ultimately says the reason for leaving is well, one, she had to get a car home, but secondly she just, it was too freaky,” Woodbury Police detective Michelle Frascone said, adding the teen “didn’t want to have to deal with it.”
The friends had also believed that Tara had taken genuine LSD and knew she couldn’t overdose from the drug.
They never tried to get help from Tara’s parents, who were unwittingly sleeping upstairs. The next morning, Tom and Mai woke up early and left the home to take Tara’s younger sister to a basketball game.
They got a frantic call later that morning from the mother of their daughter’s friend, who had gone to their house to try to wake Tara up, but by then it was too late. The 17-year-old was dead.
“I never would have thought that she’d take anything. Never,” Mai said through tears about her daughter’s stunning death.
Investigators would soon learn that Tara had actually taken the synthetic drug 25i-NBOMe, part of a class of narcotic drugs that can be unpredictable and are often sold as other, more well-known drugs. Experts say because of its synthetic nature there’s no way to know the amount of the drug in any given dose and that it can differ from one tab to another.
“It looks very similar to LSD, it’s dosed in levels that are very similar to LSD,” Jill Head, a supervisory chemist with the DEA, told Snow. “It is not chemically like LSD.”
Head compared taking the synthetic to the dangerous game of Russian roulette.
“You don’t know until it’s too late. You don’t know what’s in it or what effect it’s going to have and it really just takes one time to have very serious effects,” Head said.
25i-NBOMe was declared illegal in the United States just two months before Tara died.
Frascone said law enforcement’s first priority was getting the deadly drug off the street.
“We were absolutely terrified,” she said. “Our biggest fear as a police department and as a community is that something this deadly in this small of a dose had entered our high school.”
They were quickly able to track down the student who had sold the drugs to Tara, a high school junior who had been a honors student and football player.
They brought the teen in for questioning and he quickly told police it had been a one-time favor he did for his friend Tara and said he had gotten the drug from another student.
“I didn’t want to kill her,” he said through tears.
Police tracked down the next student in line, who admitted getting the drugs himself from another female student at the school. None of the students had been drug dealers.
“They’re good kids. They’ve never been in trouble with the law. They’ve never been in trouble at school. For the majority of them, straight A, honor society, honor roll kids,” Frascone said.
Police were eventually able to track the drugs to Cole Matenaer, a local drug dealer who had been dating a student at the high school. He was soon arrested with more than 30 doses of the same drug that Tara took.
He admitted in a police interrogation room to selling the drug as LSD even though he knew it was really a synthetic drug because “people don’t like that stuff” and “know it’s bad.”
They also found the main supplier, Alexander Claussen, who was caught with more than 300 doses of 25i-NBOMe.
As part of the investigation, police also arrested John Moltzen, the chemist who had made the drug that killed Tara.
Claussen and Matenaer both pleaded guilty to third-degree homicide in Tara’s death. Claussen received six years in prison while Matenaer got a year in county jail and 15 years of probation.
Moltzen pleaded guilty to possession with intent to sell and received nearly eight years in prison.
The three teenage students who had also played a role in selling the fatal drug to Tara reached a deal with prosecutors that allowed them to plead guilty to drug sale charges in juvenile court and were sentenced to a combination of parole, fines, and one weekend a month in a detention facility.
For Tara’s family, it wasn’t enough. Her dad Tom said it wasn’t justice “by a long shot.”
“She meant everything, everything to us, along with her younger sister,” he said. “Without her, a piece of our soul is gone.”
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