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tv   Dateline  MSNBC  July 3, 2022 10:00pm-11:00pm PDT

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there is a want to dance, i promise you. every time we have a class, she is dancing. >> that's all for this edition of dateline, i'm craig melvin, thank you for watching. you for watching >> i'm craig melvin. >> and i'm natalie morales. >> and this is "dateline." >> she was a rare gem to have as a friend, and we were lucky to have been with her. >> a bright and beautiful teen invites a friend to sleep over. the next morning, she's dead. >> oh, my god! i don't feel a pulse. >> what in the world happened? how could this be? >> turned out this was no ordinary slumber party. >> we know from their phones that this was a planned event. they had discussed it. they took pictures. >> stories surfacing of a
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dangerous experiment. >> the main purpose of having the sleepover was to try it. >> an experiment that just might tempt other teens. >> we know it's entered our high school. >> why the clues in this mystery could save a life in your family. >> you have a lot of people watching "dateline" that need to talk to their kids. >> welcome to dateline. parents always worry there are so many dangers out in the world a teenager can face. but at a slumber party in your own basement? how could something deadly have found its way there? taken a bright, talented girl. and could it happen in your town, to your child? here's kate snow with "one small dose. " >> they're killing our kids and we need to do something about it.
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>> reporter: it's a new threat. >> she was saying, "erin, your best friend died, " and she kept yelling that over and over. >> reporter: and these teens found out about it the hard way. >> it's made out to seem like one of those, you're not really going to see it in your life kind of drugs. >> reporter: they're called synthetic drugs, and they are cheap, dangerous, easy to get and often marketed specifically to young people. >> something this deadly, in this small of a dose, had entered our high school. not just our community, but our kids. >> reporter: you may not have heard of them, but law enforcement agencies across the country have, and they're sounding the alarm. >> it is a gamble. every time a kid gets a hold of one of these things, they're gambling. except, they're gambling with their lives. >> reporter: and there's no better way to understand that life-threatening gamble than the story of 17-year-old, tara fitzgerald. >> oh, my god, her lips are blue and -- i don't -- i don't
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feel a pulse. i don't feel a pulse. >> reporter: it's a story no parent wants to hear, but this mom and dad feel compelled to share. >> it seemed surreal. unbelievable. unimaginable. >> reporter: tara fitzgerald was no typical teenager. at least, that's what her closest friends say. >> she looked at the world so much deeper and with so much more meaning than anyone that i have met. >> most people were worried about prom dresses and she was worried about what kinds of things? >> very philosophical. she wanted to know how the world works and how the universe works and how god works. i'd consider her an old soul. >> such an old soul. >> yeah. >> reporter: but tara also had a lighter, more carefree side. >> quirky was the key word when it comes to tara, because she did have a different kind of sense of humor. >> she knew how to make everyone laugh. >> she liked to make faces and her and her friends would act
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goofy sometimes and they enjoyed that. >> reporter: she lived with her parents, tom and mai, and her little sister, in the quiet, suburban city of woodbury, minnesota, not far from the twin cities. >> tara was a really energetic kid from a very young age. >> reporter: according to her dad, she was a bit of a dare devil. >> she liked to do skateboarding and climbing walls. she liked to do tubing -- >> on the back of the boat? yeah, on the back of the boat, because we had a cabin and she would just be a dare devil on that. >> she liked going and taking risks and stuff. >> reporter: but her family and friends agree, tara's greatest passions were drawing and music. >> she had a pretty decent size basement. so she would play music down there a lot. she and i would go down there and jam. >> i just did it. i just did it. >> she was playing guitar a
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lot. she was getting into music. a lot of the classic'70s stuff. beatles, lynyrd skynyrd. huge, huge, huge oasis fan. >> reporter: yet none of that got in the way of school. her mother, mai, says tara was a bright, honor roll student, who loved to learn. >> she would read books. four, five books at once, and she would sit at dinner reading a book at the same time. >> you'd have to tell her to take the book away from the got. i didn't even study." >> reporter: it was january 10th, 2014, and to celebrate her score and good grades, tara asked if she could have a friday night sleepover.
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>> at that time, i was so happy. i can't turn her down. i say sure. >> and the girl that came over was somebody you knew? >> we didn't know her as well as her close, core of girlfriends, but tara knew her pretty well. they would just sit there and watch scary movies or whatever. chat and talk. >> and eat junk food. >> it made me very secure knowing that they were in the lower level of our home, hanging out together. where they had some space from us, and yet, they're safe. >> reporter: but there was something some of tara's friends knew that her parents didn't. tara was planning to experiment that night with lsd. >> the main purpose of having the sleepover was to try it, to try the drug. >> to try lsd? >> uh-huh. >> tara's friends say their group, including tara, didn't usually drink or do drugs. >> as far as going to parties and drugs and alcohol, it wasn't really something that
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was like her. >> but still, this was high school and they weren't exactly shocked that tara wanted to try something illegal. >> i told her that's a stupid idea. >> and you left it at that? >> yeah, and she didn't really want to be talked out of it. >> i think everyone kind of knew it was kind of a bucket list type thing for her. i mean, she was really into the beatles and they obviously talk about that kind of thing in their songs. >> reporter: that weekend started like so many for teenagers. tara's friend came over for their friday night sleepover, and the two girls spent the night doing their own thing in the basement. >> i could hear the girls down there laughing, but i didn't want to go down there and talk to them. >> invade their privacy? >> yeah. >> reporter: the next morning, tom and mai let the girls sleep in and quietly left the house for a basketball game with tara's little sister. they assumed everything was fine at the house, until they got a frantic call. it was the mother of the friend who'd slept over. >> she called and said that she was at our house and that they couldn't wake tara up. >> they couldn't wake her up?
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>> right. and then she said something about, i think she's taken some drug or something. and i was like, "what? you can't wake her up? " i said, "call 911." and i immediately got off the phone and grabbed mai, and we shot out the door to go for home. >> drugs? they couldn't fathom it. but tara's parents, as well as their whole community, were about to get an unwelcomed education. >> i never would have thought that she would take anything. >> no. >> never in a million years. >> coming up -- what exactly had happened to tara? investigators were about to uncover some disturbing clues. >> we know from their phones that this was a planned event. they had discussed it. they took pictures. >> what those pictures revealed, when "dateline" continues.
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cold midwestern morning, and tom and mai fitzgerald were facing the worst moment of their lives. >> what in the world happened? how could this be? it just seemed like a complete nightmare. >> reporter: they were at an early morning basketball game with their youngest child, when they got a terrifying phone call from a fellow parent, who was at their home. she said
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their 17-year-old daughter, tara, was lying unresponsive in the basement. tom told her to call 911. >> oh, my god. her lips are blue. and i don't -- i don't feel a pulse. i don't feel a pulse. >> you don't feel a pulse? >> correct. >> okay. try to shake her and shout, are you okay? does she respond? >> tara, are you okay? >> are you all right, tara? are you okay, sweetie? nothing. >> are you okay? >> reporter: tom and mai raced home to find their house surrounded. >> just a lot of cop cars and ambulance. i was praying. >> and the paramedics were working on her, trying to get her to breathe. i talked to her. just saying, "please, tara." you know. "come back." and trying to encourage her. >> they put her in the ambulance, took her to the hospital. >> then i went -- mai was just
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inconsolable, so i had to just leave. i went by myself and i drove to the hospital. so, i was in there with her and the doctors. >> reporter: doctors worked tirelessly for almost half an hour to save tara, and then, they had to stop. >> then they just told me that it wasn't going to happen, so they were going to stop their efforts. yeah. i don't know. i was in shock, you know? i just went and laid on her and cried. it seemed surreal. unbelievable this was happening to tara. >> you hear terrible story on tv, you hear all this tragedy, but you never thought that it could happen to your kid. >> no, not in a million years. >> you never think that would happen. and so, when it happens, you don't believe it. >> no. >> reporter: tara's friends knew she was planning to take lsd that night, but it never occur to them that she could
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die. >> she assured me it's not dangerous. and i didn't know anything about it, so i assumed that she must be doing her research on it. >> mai called them to break the news. >> she was really hysterical. she was saying, erin, your best friend died, and she kept yelling that over and over. >> my god. what did you do? >> i was just so shocked. it was so hard to process what that meant. >> my first response was, are you kidding? because it didn't feel real yet. but then it was like everything kind of hit at once and it was all just -- everything fell apart. >> reporter: investigators were surprised, too, but by something else. at the time, commander brian mueller was the head of the local drug task force. when he heard tara overdosed on lsd, it just didn't add up. >> we don't see that with lsd-related drugs. >> reporter: lsd, also known as
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acid, was created by a research chemist back in the'30s, and has been studied for decades. much is known about its effects. and in mueller's experience, he knows lsd can trigger deadly behavior. somebody jumps out a window or acts out because of the lsd? >> absolutely. yeah. injures themselves or gets in a fight or, yeah, jumps out a window. >> reporter: but the drug itself is not usually deadly. >> an lsd overdose typically isn't going to happen in our experience. and so, our concern at that time is immediately what was ingested? was that the cause of her death? and is there any more out there? >> reporter: even tara's grief-stricken father was perplexed. >> when i heard "acid, " i thought, i've never heard about anybody overdosing from acid. so it seemed really peculiar. i mean, this is some of the things that were running through my mind. >> reporter: and another question, if tara and her friend both took the drug, why did one girl live and the other die? michelle frascone was the lead detective. how do you explain that? >> terrifying. i mean, that is
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something we had to look at. why do we have one that's able to communicate with us a few hours later, sitting in an interview room, and we have one that's going to autopsy? our first thing was to talk to the friend, who provided us quite a bit of information from that evening. at least a decent timeline. we did phone forensics immediately. >> what did that tell you what happened after midnight? >> we know from their phones that this was a planned event. they had discussed it. they took pictures. >> reporter: this is a photo of tara taken just moments after she took the drug, and that's what an actual lsd tab looks like. it was unclear to detectives whether those are two tabs or one tab that came apart. >> the reason they had selected the night of the 10th was because tara's parents were going to be gone in the morning for a sporting event for her sister, so this was going to give them time to recover. >> reporter: tara and her
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friend had planned it all out, even arranging to have another friend on stand-by to call in case something went wrong. and as teenagers do, they had their phones out taking photos and videos. this is some of the video taken that night. >> [laughs] >> reporter: the video showed investigators how the night went from a fun, giggly high -- >> how do you feel, tara? >> i don't know. pretty weird. >> reporter: to this. tara lying unresponsive on the basement floor. she was in serious trouble, but her friend never woke tara's parents who were right upstairs, and she never called 911. but she did call the friend who had agreed to help in an emergency, and she sped right over. >> it sounds like she comes in through a window. something's not right with tara. she's not communicating anymore. she's not talking to them. and this person who comes says, "i sit with her on the floor, i rub
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her hair. i just hope it's all going to go away." >> does she stay? >> she stays for a bit of time, then ultimately says the reason for leaving is, well, one, she had to get her car home. but secondly, she just -- it was too freaky. >> too freaky? >> yeah, didn't want to have to deal with it. >> reporter: the friend sleeping over wrote this heartbreaking note towards the end of the night. >> "dear tara, this is the worst night of our life and it still isn't over. love, " the friend. >> how did the friends explain not calling for help? what did they say to you? >> they simply say they didn't want the get in trouble. they didn't want their parents to be upset or disappointed. these were "a" honor roll students -- >> and thought they could wait it out? >> right. >> reporter: because the teenagers didn't think lsd was all that dangerous, let alone deadly. >> she assumed that it was genuine lsd, and she must have read somewhere that you can't overdose on genuine lsd. >> reporter: and the police
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were thinking along those same lines. it couldn't have been lsd. tara had to have taken something else. >> we have to figure out where it came from, what it is. is it illegal? >> reporter: woodbury police now had a mystery to solve and a deadly drug to track down. >> coming up -- investigators also want to find out who gave tara the drug that killed her. now they and her family are in for a huge surprise. >> i was like what the -- are you kidding me? what is going on here? how can this be? >> when "dateline" continues. trelegy for copd. [coughing] ♪ birds flyin' high, you know how i feel. ♪
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minnesota, police department was trying to find out how one small dose of a drug killed 17-year-old tara fitzgerald. tara thought she was taking lsd, but the local drug task force team suspected she'd taken something else. >> we're pretty sure it's some type of synthetic drug, either that we've heard about or don't know about. >> a synthetic drug? >> yes. >> reporter: the term "synthetic drugs" refers to a new class of narcotics developed in just the last seven years. they are made from chemicals that can be unpredictable, and are sometimes sold masquerading as other, better-known drugs. tara's case was the first time
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police in this suburb were dealing with a synthetic drug death. and tara's friends say they knew little, if anything, about this new class of drugs. >> i know in our health class, which all high schoolers are required to take, they do speak of synthetic drugs. but it is kind of made out to seem like one of those, you're not really going to see it in your life kind of drugs. >> are there lots of drugs in the high school? >> it was casual to hear about marijuana and alcohol in our grade or in our high school. but then you get up into the higher, more dangerous drugs, we wouldn't really hear about that. >> so, at parties would people be -- they'd be smoking pot, right? >> yeah. >> drinking? >> uh-huh. >> anything more than that? >> no. if people were going to do anything more than that, usually it would have been something that was a little bit more private. >> we were absolutely terrified. 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. not just our community, but our kids. >> reporter:
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investigators'first priority was locating the drugs and getting them off the street. that meant finding the person who sold them to tara. a search through her text messages pointed to one name. so, you're able right away to figure out right away, here's the person that gave it to tara? >> here's the person, yeah. >> and who was that? >> brian norlander. >> and who was he? >> brian was completely unknown to us. >> reporter: brian was a high school junior, honors student, football player and a close of friend of tara's. never been in trouble before? >> never been in trouble. never been in trouble before. >> reporter: yet somehow, brian was mixed up in a drug deal. text messages told police he'd sold tara the tabs for ten dollars each. so, you need to find brian right away? >> we need to find brian. >> reporter: it was saturday afternoon, just hours after tara died, and her friends were gathered at her home. >> i remember walking in and seeing mai on the couch and hearing her scream. and the
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atmosphere was just tense and everyone was absolutely heartbroken. >> reporter: two of tara's friends knew that brian sold her the drug and texted him to meet, but they didn't know police were looking for him, too. >> he lived by tara. so me and erin walked and he drove, and we met up with him on the street and just went into his car to tell him what had happened. >> so you guys are walking from up there, right? >> uh-huh. >> and brian is driving a car? >> yeah, brian drove up to here. >> and we were walking from that way. >> sitting in the car, they told brian what happened. >> i mean, he had to deal with losing his friend on top of thinking i gave her that drug. so, i think it was so much for him to take in all at once. so, we just kind of all sat in silence. >> reporter: but the silence was broken when a car pulled up and someone approached the window. it was the police. what happens? tells brian to get out of the car?
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>> tells brian to get out of the car, so we all stepped out of the car. another officer asked jessie and i to put our hands on the back of the car. they took our information and took our phones because everything -- >> your cell phones? >> yeah. >> so, you're watching brian be handcuffed? >> yeah. >> reporter: down at the station, brian admitted right away that he had supplied the drugs to tara, and he was clearly distraught. >> i didn't want to kill her. >> you didn't want to kill her? >> no! >> was brian a drug user, a drug dealer? was this something he did regularly? >> not that we believe. >> reporter: brian said the drug deal was a one-time thing. something he'd done as a favor for his friend tara. >> do you know what kind of drug it was? >> yep. >> what was it? >> lsd. >> okay. and is it actually lsd, as far as you know, or is it something else? >> i'm fairly positive it is. >> okay. >> reporter: brian was reluctant to say where he got it, but eventually he gave
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police a name. >> who is alistair berg? >> a friend of mine. >> reporter: officers went right out to find him. they questioned alistair at his home, where he confessed to selling brian the drugs, but said he was no drug dealer either. he said he bought the drugs from yet another woodbury high school student, sydney johnson. >> this is becoming even more concerning for law enforcement, because we have not made it out of the high school yet. >> who are these kids that we're talking about? >> 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" honors society, honor roll kids. >> reporter: and now, they were all in serious trouble. tara's parents were stunned when they heard where the police investigation was going. >> i was like, what the -- are you kidding me? brian norlander was the one that gave this to her? how -- what is going on
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here? how can this be? >> your whole world is being -- >> turned upside down. >> -- shaken? >> turned upside down completely. he would be the last person in the world that i would've imagined that she would've gotten something from. >> responsible kid? >> very responsible, very good influence. >> and he is smart kid. >> reporter: it was that third student from the high school, sydney johnson, who gave police the next important piece of information. a first name and cell phone number of a local dealer. he had a girlfriend who went to woodbury high. >> cole is the lead we've been waiting for. we have an adult. we have a drug dealer. we have the connection to the high school. we have the statements up to cole. >> reporter: the next day, 18-year-old cole matenaer was arrested with more than 30 doses of the same drug tara took, ready to be sold. so, he's got more of this stuff. he's peddling it. he's selling it. >> not only does he have more of the stuff, he has more of the stuff knowing that someone
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has already died in our community. >> reporter: detectives later sat down with cole and his attorney, and cole confirmed what authorities already suspected. he was lying to his clients, telling them the drugs were lsd, because he knew they wouldn't want synthetics. >> because people don't like that stuff. they think it's -- they know it's bad, you know? >> reporter: police were about to find out exactly what killed tara fitzgerald, and discover that it was a problem that went way beyond their quiet suburb. >> coming up -- many synthetic drugs are packaged to seem completely harmless. but -- >> they're not regulated, they're not consistent, they're not safe. >> what exactly is this stuff? when "dateline" continues. ifferent. it works naturally with the water in your body to unblock your gut.
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rinvoq helps tame pain, stiffness, swelling. and for some...rinvoq can even significantly immune system attacks and your joints.nvoq rinvoq regulates it to help stop the attack. rinvoq can lower your ability to fight infections, including tb. serious infections and blood clots, some fatal; cancers, including lymphoma and skin cancer; death, heart attack, stroke, and tears in the stomach or intestines occurred. people 50 and older with at least one heart disease risk factor have higher risks. don't take if allergic to rinvoq as serious reactions can occur. tell your doctor if you are or may become pregnant. talk to your rheumatologist about rinvoq relief. rinvoq. make it your mission. learn how abbvie could help you save on rivnoq. >> reporter: after weeks of
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speculation, woodbury police finally confirmed that the drug 17-year-old tara fitzgerald had taken was really a deadly synthetic drug. >> people are generally just purporting it to be acid? >> yeah. >> i need acid, i go buy acid. >> reporter: cole matenaer was the local dealer who supplied the drugs to students at woodbury high. he admitted to police the tabs he was selling
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as lsd were really a synthetic drug called 25i. >> -- because people don't like that stuff. they think it's -- they know it's bad, you know? >> but you know it's 25i. >> yeah. >> had you ever heard of it before? >> never. we had never dealt with it before. >> reporter: 25i is a new chemical that was only made illegal in the u. s. two months before tara died. it can cause hallucinations, like lsd. but in tara's case, it also led to seizures, respiratory distress and ultimately, cardiac arrest. it sometimes goes by the street name, "n-bomb" or "smiles. " and detectives were about to show us the doses they'd seized in tara's case. >> this is the size of it. >> wait, that's the drug on that little, tiny, pink piece of paper? it's smaller than my pinkie fingernail. typically packaged in tiny pieces of tinfoil, it almost looks like trash. but inside, the drugs are so potent, investigators have to handle them with gloves. >> the reason that detective
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frascone and i are wearing gloves is, if you touch that, you could absorb that and become -- the drug in there could affect you simply by absorption. >> reporter: and when you take a closer look, it's easy to see how some tabs could be stronger than others. >> there's no way of knowing the amount of drug on this tab here and this individual tab here. >> they all look different. how would anybody know what they're getting? >> that is the biggest problem and our biggest concern is that this whole process is so unscientific. >> reporter: it's a problem that's become a national concern as well. across the country, the drug enforcement administration has seen an increased number of cases involving synthetic drug sales, overdoses and deaths. we paid a visit to a nondescript building that's under intense security. it's the dea's research and testing lab, where we met with supervisory chemist, jill head. are we still in the midst of a
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growing epidemic when it comes to synthetics? >> i would say that we are. >> reporter: this dea lab has analyzed and identified more than 400 different types of synthetic drugs seized in the u. s.. most of these chemicals have one thing in common. they've been manufactured for the sole purpose of creating a cheap, recreational high. this one is the base chemical that tara ingested. >> in this vial is 25i. >> reporter: is it just a powder? >> it is a powder. >> reporter: when dissolved into a liquid, the 25i is soaked or eye-dropped on to perforated paper to create doses that look just like lsd tabs. >> it looks very similar to lsd. it's dosed in levels that are very similar to lsd. >> is it chemically like lsd? >> it is not chemically like lsd. >> reporter: a drop of 25i is far stronger than a drop of lsd. and if you apply too much, a single dose can be fatal.
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>> it's like 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. >> reporter: these new chemicals are turned into drugs that come in all different forms: powders, pills, crystals, even liquids. some are sold by dealers, but there's another, even easier way that kids get their hands on synthetic drugs. many are sold in stores or head shops in packages like these, designed to make them look harmless. >> says, "does not contain any dea-banned substances. " statements like these are very misleading. >> even though they're in flashy packages -- >> they're not regulated. they're not consistent. they're not safe. they're not tested. >> reporter: the dea has even found problems with what's sometimes called synthetic
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marijuana. it looks like pot and is sometimes sold in head shops, but it is nothing like the marijuana that's been legalized in some states. the plant material has been coated or sprayed with a synthetic drug, making it much more potent and potentially deadly. >> this is a combination of plant material that has been dosed with a drug. >> and somebody would roll that and smoke it? >> correct, right. >> reporter: but one of the scariest things about all these synthetic drugs is where they're coming from and how difficult it is to stop the flow into the united states. how easy is it for someone here in america to buy these chemicals? >> too easy, extremely easy. a couple clicks and it's on its way. >> coming up -- synthetic drugs, all-too tempting to kids. why dealers love them, too. >> you make about a $1500 or so investment in these chemicals, you can probably make about a quarter of a million dollars on the street.
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>> that's a huge return on investment. >> it's a big markup. >> when "dateline" continues. ugh-stipated... feeling weighed down by a backedup gut" miralax is different. it works naturally with the water in your body to unblock your gut. your gut. and your mood will follow.
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[whistling] when you have technology that's easier to control... that can scale across all your clouds... we got that right? yeah, we got that. it's easier to be an innovator. >> reporter: while local so you can do more incredible things. [whistling] officials were chasing down the source of a deadly synthetic drug in this town near minneapolis, the drug enforcement administration has been doing the same on a national level.
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>> you're talking about a multi-million dollar industry in the united states. >> reporter: chuck rosenberg is the administrator in charge of the dea. >> you're talking about an industry that's killing our kids. >> reporter: the dea says the synthetic drug problem in the u. s. originates far outside our borders. >> the chemicals come from abroad. often it's processed or assembled and packaged here. but the chemicals are coming from overseas. >> are most of these chemicals coming from china? >> reporter: in china, is that fair to say? for the most part, it's been perfectly legal to manufacture and sell most >> most of it's coming from china. synthetic chemicals. in fact, over the last seven years, the "china pipeline, " as it's called, has made so many of these chemical compounds, it's created a whole new world of drug dealing. a world where drugmakers and dealers rarely meet, and where drug buys take place online. how easy is it for someone here in america to buy these chemicals? >> too easy. extremely easy. somebody sits down at their keyboard, orders it over the internet, and it shows up in a package. they're reasonably savvy in the way they package it, and you can only imagine how many packages are transiting our borders every
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single day. you're talking about millions and millions and millions of packages. finding the one with the bad stuff in it, that's hard to do. >> reporter: but finding a website that's willing to sell and ship these chemicals straight to your doorstep, that's pretty easy. my producer found several websites where you can pretty easily buy and import a kilo, which is a few pounds, right? >> 2. 2 pounds. >> 2. 2 pounds. so, if she can do it, can anyone do it? >> well, she can't do it legally. but yes. if she can do it, anyone can do it. >> we didn't, by the way. >> oh, i'm glad to hear that. i would prefer that you not. >> reporter: this is video shot inside an actual lab in china, these chemicals, you can probably make about a quarter of a million dollars on the street. >> that's a huge return on investment. >> it's a big markup. they're in it to make money. and they don't care whose life they take. it is a gamble every time a kid gets hold of one of these things. they're gambling. except, they're gambling with their life.
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>> because it's so inconsistent? >> absolutely. right? you and i could go buy the same thing on the same day, in the same place, and nothing happens to you and i end up dead. >> reporter: that was apparently what happened in tara's case. the tabs she and her friend took were haphazardly made, and only tara ended up with a deadly dose. >> she had this high level of this drug, 25i. >> had you ever heard of -- >> never heard of it. and i'm sure tara hadn't either, you know? they thought they were taking something completely different than what they were. >> what did you know about synthetic drugs before this? >> nothing. >> reporter: and the trafficking of synthetics can be tough to prosecute, because as soon as the federal government deems one chemical compound illegal, foreign labs alter its molecular structure, producing a similar version that's not officially banned. >> the formulas are being tweaked all the time, and that's a problem. so, there's some degree of playing catch up.
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>> sort of like a whack-a-mole, where you whack one and then something else pops up? >> it's not a bad analogy. >> reporter: in tara's case, detectives had identified four local people, three high school students and a dealer, who were involved in the drug sales that lead to her death. and after months of digging, they finally found the main supplier, 19-year-old alexander claussen. he was caught with more than 300 doses of 25i. >> alex, you have a right to remain silent. anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. >> reporter: the drugs were seized and the entire distribution chain involved in tara's death was finally shut down. just one final question loomed. what would happen to tara's classmates? the kids who expected to be going off to college soon, not prison? >> religiously, i want to
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forgive everybody. but as a parent, let me tell you, it's harder. it's very hard. >> coming up -- the stakes are about to go up. tara's classmates may be charged with no less than homicide. coming up -- >> if you sell a substance that leads to death, you're guilty of murder. >> what will that mean for tara's parents? >> is it justice? >> when "dateline" continues. clr> weighed down by a backedup gut" miralax is different. it works naturally with the water in your body to unblock your gut. your gut. and your mood will follow. it's started. somewhere between a cuddle and a struggle, it's...the side hug. tween milestones like this may start at age 9. hpv vaccination - a type of cancer prevention against certain hpv-related cancers, can start then too.
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i'm natalie morales. a small community in minnesota had been rocked by the death of one of its rising stars. the cause, as sinister drug most people had never even heard of. now, the question, who pace for introducing the deadly substance into the high school. the victim's family was about to find out. here's kate snow with the conclusion of "one small dose." >> reporter: tara fitzgerald's friends and family had gotten a lesson they never asked for. one that came too late to save tara from a synthetic drug overdose. >> we're not taught how dangerous it really is and how unstable the chemicals can be. >> the kids don't know how deadly these drugs are. there's not enough information that's being pushed out to the public. you hear a lot about things
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like heroin and cocaine and meth. but something like these synthetics is far deadlier in tiny dosage. >> reporter: prosecutors handling the first synthetic drug death in woodbury now had five defendants, including three high school students. the two adults, who knew they were selling 25i and profited from the drugs, were charged not with drug sales but with murder. why homicide? >> in minnesota, there's murder in the third degree. it's a pretty open statute that says, if you sell a substance, a schedule one or two substance, that leads to the death, you're guilty of murder. >> reporter: both adults pleaded guilty to third degree murder. the main supplier, alexander claussen, was sentenced to six years in prison, while cole matenaer got a year in county jail and 15 years probation. yet, when it came to prosecuting the three students, there were more difficult decisions to be made.
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these teenagers had never been in trouble before and seemed to have promising futures. but like the adults, they too were facing murder charges. county attorney, pete orput. >> i don't want to scare kids. bullies scare people. i just let them know, if you do this, you can expect justice. and we're pretty firm about it. >> so, when investigators said they were going to throw the book at these kids? >> yeah, i was for it. >> reporter: you were for it? >> i was for it. yes, absolutely. yeah, they make mistakes. so, from that aspect of it, i can understand both sides. but the overpowering part of it is that i am tara's dad, and they made a mistake that killed my daughter. they have to take responsibility for that. >> reporter: but it never came to that. inside the county attorney's office, negotiations
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got underway and all three teens reached plea agreements. they pleaded 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. you end up negotiating a pretty creative deal for the three high school students. >> i think so. >> why'd you do that? >> because we try to be fair. they weren't the ones making money distributing it. this seemed like a one-time deal. i don't want them to suffer, but they need to have some guilt about what they did. it can't be free. >> reporter: mai and tom were disappointed with the more lenient plea deals the teens negotiated. is it justice? >> no, not by a long shot for me. no, it's not. >> tara's parents would say it wasn't enough. >> we were not flip about it. we put a good deal of time into going, are we being too tough? are we being tough enough? but i'm convinced they were fair resolutions in the end. >> reporter: tom went to all
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five sentencing hearings and looked each defendant in the eye. >> i wanted to read a statement to them and show them what this loss has meant to the family. this is who tara was and what she meant to us. she meant everything, everything to us, along with her younger sister. without her, a piece of our soul is gone. >> it was heart wrenching to hear him talk about his daughter that he doesn't get to see any more. it was really difficult to watch him and see all the emotion. >> reporter: since tara's death and with the publicity surrounding her case, woodbury police have not seen another synthetic drug overdose. >> i think it's definitely caused a deterrent. we're not seeing it in the high school like we were with this case. >> reporter: on the national level, the dea increased efforts to shut down synthetic drug rings. between 2012 and 2015, operation project synergy has seized almost 50,000 pounds of synthetic drugs and made more than 400 arrests.
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>> did we get it all? of course not. that would be a very difficult thing to do. but we got a bunch of it. and we got some stuff off the streets. and i presume that we, in the process, saved some lives. >> reporter: after years of international pressure, china made it illegal to manufacture and sell more than 100 synthetic drug chemicals, including 25i. >> that was a great step. is it enough? no, it's not enough. we need to do a lot more. them, us, everybody. >> reporter: and at home, detective frascone suggests parents start respecting their kids'privacy a little less and start snooping around a lot more. >> go through their stuff. search their stuff. >> that's hard, though. what about their privacy? they're teenagers. >> and there is an element of privacy with teenagers. however, you don't want me showing up at your door. if the difference is an upset kid and you know what they're doing or them being in
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a casket, i guess i'd choose the upset kid. >> i wish i would've gone downstairs, because i would have probably detected something off with those girls. but i didn't, because i didn't want to infringe on their space. >> reporter: tom and mai's greatest hope is that other parents will learn from their loss and become more aware of the risks. >> we all feel immune to drugs, because our kids are better than that. they know better. they're not going to do this. they're going to be smarter, and it's not going to happen to us. >> reporter: tara's friends are in college now and think of her often. they hope, with the investigation behind them, people will remember tara not just for the way she died, but as they do. >> i want people to remember how spunky she was. >> she was a rare gem, to have as a friend, and we were lucky to have been with her.
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>> i want people to know that she was smart and she had a future. and she just happened to make one bad decision. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline." i'm natalie morales. thank you for watching. >> i remember it being so unbelievable, that a plane has landed in our families like. >> a couple of young people on. >> we're trying to locate with fish finders. >> they found it, and her. >> she was a pretty girl. >> some of her long hair was caught in the door. >> she looked like she was actually sleeping. >> but where was the pilot? >> they were pretty sure he was heading to mexico. >> i can remember getting calls


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