Dying to get high: Tracking Minnesota's fatal overdoses

- The numbers are staggering.  More than 65,000 died in 2016 from drug overdoses, the vast majority from opioids, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. That is more than 100 fatal overdoses every day.  It far exceeds the annual loss from traffic fatalities, or American casualties in the Vietnam War.  

The human toll of the epidemic is even more devastating. Behind every death, there is usually a family looking for answers, and sometimes, for justice. This is just one of those stories. 

RELATED: Where to turn for help if you or a loved one are struggling with addiction

“This is one of the places I knocked on,” said Bob Bloomberg as he drove down a stretch of 3rd Street in North Minneapolis. 

“I go to those houses, scary people answer the door,” said Bloomberg. “’Do you sell drugs?’ Because my daughter died over there.”

It was Dec. 29, 2017, when police found Jessica Bloomberg, 26, and Blake Thompson, 32, dead from an apparent drug overdose. Four hours earlier, neighbors had called 911 to report a couple appeared to be unconscious in an idling car.  

“Somebody could’ve shown up with a couple of hits of Narcan and saved both these kids; they’d still be alive. But they sat,” said Bloomberg.

Bloomberg told the Fox 9 Investigators his main priority is to find the drug dealer who sold his daughter heroin.  

“My little girl was maybe on the wrong side of the tracks, but I think she was trying to get to the right side,” said Bloomberg.

Blake Thompson’s father is also looking for answers, but not on 3rd Street North.  

“Honestly, if it wasn’t that drug dealer it would be another one,” said Mark Thompson. “They were out to get it. They got it. This is the result. I want him [the drug dealer] to be caught, too. It’s not going to bring my son back."

TRACKING 652 FATAL OVERDOSES 

Blake and Jessica were two of the last people to die in 2017 from an opioid overdose, but they were hardly alone. 

Using data provided by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, The Fox 9 Investigators examined 652 fatal opioid overdoses in the last three years, from Jan. 1, 2014, to Jan. 1, 2018.  

The majority of those deaths - 63 percent - involved a combination of drugs with an opioid being the primary cause of death. About 12 percent died from heroin alone. The synthetic opioid drug fentanyl was responsible for 29 deaths, or 4 percent of the total. 

Tracking where people died, a few hot zones emerge. Some are obvious, like hospitals. But several overdoses occurred along the 28th Street corridor in south Minneapolis, just off the Greenway.

There were also areas in north Minneapolis where you could find small clusters of deaths, including the area where Jessica and Blake died on 3rd Street North. There was another fatal overdose around the corner and still another a couple blocks away.

For Blake Thompson, this wasn’t his first time on 3rd Street North.  

Looking at Google Maps Street View, his parents believe they can see the green Saturn Blake was driving a couple of years ago, just a few hundred feet from where he died last December.  

Blake’s addiction began a few years ago, his father said, with a terrible car accident and an aftermath of pain medications. In a few months the pills were gone; the pain was not. 

According to a recent study in JAMA Psychiatry, 75 percent of all heroin users begin by taking pain medication. 

“I don’t know if you know this, but $40 is the magic number,” said Mark Thompson. He learned that $40 is the cost of a fix for a regular user. 

“I’ve got three kids still struggling with this,” said Mark Thompson. “But since Blake’s funeral, since his death, I’ve come to this realization: Don’t give in, but don’t give up,” said Thompson.  

Bob Bloomberg never gave in, and he admits it drove him and his daughter apart.  

“I always was the bad guy,” said Bloomberg.  

Bloomberg said he could always tell when his daughter was abusing drugs by the look in her eyes.  

“I told her I’m petrified. She said don’t call me anymore and hung up on me,” said Bloomberg.

He learned the extent of her addictions while cleaning out the apartment she shared with Blake Thompson and her boyfriend. Bloomberg documented amounts of heroin, cocaine, scales for weighing drugs, along with bottles of prescription pain medications. There were also videos he discovered on her cell phone showing the three using drugs.  

Bloomberg is suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s death because she was dressed lightly on a day when temperatures were below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Minneapolis Police determined the deaths were an accidental overdose. But, the case has not become public because, according to the police records unit, it is connected to an ongoing narcotics investigation.  

There is something else about the case that would keep it from becoming a homicide investigation. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner determined Jessica and Blake not only died from a heroin overdose, but that carbon monoxide was a contributing factor. Investigators subsequently discovered there was a leak in the exhaust system of the vehicle allowing carbon monoxide to enter through a hole in the trunk.  

In some situations, prosecutors can charge a drug dealer with third degree murder if they can show the drug “proximately causes” a person’s death. According to the Commission on Sentencing Guidelines, 38 individuals have been sentenced under that specific part of the statute in the last decade. 

For his part, Bob Bloomberg knows his daughter is responsible for the circumstances that led to her death.  

“As much as I’d like to say Jessica was an angel who was in a really bad circumstance, Jessica walked down this path on her own,” said Bloomberg. “No one put a gun to her head and said, ‘Snort this, it might kill you.’ She did that on her own.”

WHERE TO TURN FOR HELP

For many families who have a loved one facing an opioid addiction the choices can seem stark: recovery or a fatal overdose.  

The Fox 9 Investigators previously examined the debate over 12 Step abstinence based therapies versus Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction. MAT can include drugs such as methadone, Suboxone, naloxone, and buprenorphine.  Most major medical and addiction groups, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), consider MAT the standard of care for the treatment of opioid addiction.  

SAMHSA has a toll free hotline 877-SAMHSA-7 (877-726-4727). These web sites can also direct you to MAT programs near you.  

State Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Treatment Locator

SAMHSA National Telephone Helpline

National Methadone Services Locator

National Buprenorphine Treatment Provider Locator

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