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Emotions run high at sentencing in Fitzgerald overdose death case

Emotions gushed from both sides of a packed courtroom Friday at a hearing for two men who admitted to selling the drugs that led to a Woodbury teenager’s death.

Parents, friends and relatives laid out competing arguments for justice versus leniency at a sentencing hearing for two men who had pleaded guilty to murder in the January 2014 overdose death of Woodbury High School student Tara Fitzgerald.

The back-to-back sentencing hearings for each man – who had both offered so-called “straight pleas” that come without any offers from prosecutors – resulted in different punishments meted out by Washington County District Court Judge Richard Ilkka.

Alexander Lee Claussen, a 20-year-old from St. Cloud, was sentenced to 74 months – at least four years of which must be spent in prison. Claussen had been accused of being the primary supplier of so-called synthetic LSD that was sold, passed along among others in Woodbury, and ultimately led to Fitzgerald’s death.

For 19-year-old resident Cole Matenaer, however, the sentence brought a different resolution. The Woodbury man, considered a distributor of Claussen’s drugs, was given a one-year jail sentence paired with a 15-year probationary term.

Both men were ordered responsible for $23,845 in restitution costs for Fitzgerald’s family.

The hearing saw blunt testimony from Tara’s father, Thomas Fitzgerald. After recalling Tara as a youngster who showed perseverance in overcoming a serious arm infection before transitioning into a studious teenager whose musical acumen shone brightly through the instruments she taught herself to play.

“She was just an intuitive and amazingly talented girl,” Thomas Fitzgerald said, adding that Tara’s now 13-year-old sister Caitlin has also been left to grieve the loss.

Thomas Fitzgerald said the death of the child he and his wife Mai had worked so hard to steer from negative influences, however, has proven devastating for the family. He said he moved his family from the home last summer

“Living there was just too painful for us,” he said while family member sat next to him holding a large portrait of Tara that faced Ilkka throughout the statement.

It was revealed during Thomas Fitzgerald’s statement that his daughter died at their home while he and his wife slept upstairs. A girl who was with Tara when she ingested the drug, known as 25i-NBOMe, watched her moan and convulse as she began to overdose, he told the court. Thomas Fitzgerald said the friend called another friend, but never came up to tell him Tara was in distress because she was afraid of getting in trouble.

“How would you like to live with this knowledge if this had happened to your child at your house while you slept?” he said.

The father saved his sharpest contempt for Claussen and Matenaer, whom he chided for selling the fatal dose that his daughter ingested.

“Hold drug dealers accountable for my Tara’s and other people’s sons’ and daughters’ murders,” he told Ilkka. “These criminals should be held responsible and punished appropriately if they sell a drug that kills someone.”

Matenaer quietly wept from a courtroom pew during Thomas Fitzgerald’s testimony, while Claussen sat, eyes fixed straight ahead from his seat at the defense table.

Assistant Washington County Attorney Imran Ali argued against leniency for both men, offering a criminal history that painted Claussen as unrepentant and lawless. Ali outlined a series of drug offenses Claussen committed after being charged in the Fitzgerald case, for which he said the 20-year-old never expressed remorse.

“Not one time,” Ali said.

He later said that Matenaer’s honesty came into question after reviewing scores of text messages sent by Matenaer after Fitzgerald’s death. Ali said the evidence left him unconvinced of Matenaer’s honesty and remorse.

“Those text messages … were vile and repulsive,” he said.

On the other side of the courtroom, several people stepped forward to seek leniency for Claussen, including his own father.

Claussen’s father offered an emotional appeal for his son. He said his son’s judgment was clouded by drug abuse.

“It broke our heart that the young girl’s life was cut short,” the father said, before bursting into tears.

Alexander Claussen later offered his own apology, saying “I just want to say how sorry I am to everyone involved in this situation,” later adding, “If I could take away the pain, I would.”

Matenaer offered his own plea for leniency, saying he never intended to harm anyone with his actions.

“Words will never be able to express” the remorse, he told Ilkka.

After the hearing, Thomas Fitzgerald said he was conflicted. While he hoped for a harsher penalty against Matenaer, he said he hopes the teen uses the lighter sentence to turn his life around.

“I do not want to see another young life lost,” he said. “I’m not that spiteful.”

Yet he suggested that justice remains an elusive concept, especially when considering Claussen’s prison sentence.

“If four years’ time is an adequate sentence for me losing my daughter? I’d say no,” he said. “I don’t think it’s really adequate, personally.”

The fallout from Tara Fitzgerald’s death cast a pall over the Woodbury High School community. Three other juveniles – all WHS students at the time – were also charged with murder in the case. No pleas have yet been entered in the three juvenile cases.

Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague, who sat through both sentencing hearings, said he hopes community members heed Thomas Fitzgerald’s message that drug fatalities can stun even the most proactive, caring parents.

“I just wonder if our kids and our parents are paying attention,” Vague said. “I hope they are.”

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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