Grand Forks documentary gives sobering details on drug problems

Grand Forks documentary gives sobering details on drug problems

GRAND FORKS -- Like any morning, Wayne Poitra woke up July 16, 2014, and made sandwiches for himself and his 19-year-old son, Evan, before they went off to work.

Before Wayne left the house, he went downstairs to wake up Evan. The lights were still on in Evan's room.

"Get up for work," Wayne said to Evan.

But Evan didn't move.

As Wayne and his wife, Jackie, recount that day in a locally produced documentary, tears fill their eyes. Evan died from a fentanyl overdose.

"No parent should have to go and find their son when you go to wake them up like I have," Wayne said.

The documentary, "Faded," was screened at a public forum Tuesday evening at the Empire Arts Center in downtown Grand Forks. The screening, which was part of a larger event to discuss the issue of fentanyl and other addictions in the area, was followed by a panel discussion with representatives from health services, schools, Altru Health System and the North Dakota courts.

Fentanyl has been prominent recently in the Fargo area, but the drug first made headlines last year in North Dakota after two people from Grand Forks overdosed and died from using fentanyl citrate, a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

The two were Bailey Evan Henke, 18, who died Jan. 3, 2015, at a Grand Forks apartment and Evan Poitra, Jackie and Wayne's son.

The fentanyl deaths ultimately prompted local law enforcement to launch "Operation Denial," an investigation into fentanyl trafficking in the area. The local investigation eventually became a federal case and crossed state lines and international borders, leading investigators to other drug dealers and overdose victims.

The documentary, free to watch on YouTube, takes people beyond the court cases and into the worlds of five local people that these deaths and drugs directly impacted.

"We know now that kids have died, or that people have died in our community from fentanyl, and people are continuing to use it," Jackie said.


Altru emergency room employees are seeing the impact of drugs in the Grand Forks area firsthand, as well. In 2015, 226 overdose patients were admitted to Altru, doubling since 2010.

Dr. Christopher Boe specifically recalls having two young people die in the past year.

"It's just awful to have to go into the room and look in the mom's eyes and say your daughter or your son is dead, and I'm suspecting that it's from a drug overdose," Boe said. "That's an awful thing to tell someone."

"The hospital staff currently is seeing overdoses at record amounts right here in Grand Forks that no one ever hears about," said a Grand Forks police drug force officer whose identity was protected in the documentary. "Those incidents are occurring daily. And it's scary when you know the numbers."

According to the Grand Forks County Coroner, there were 51 overdose deaths in 2014, surpassing fatal motor vehicle accidents. In this region, the number of drug overdose deaths doubled from 2013 to 2014.

In the documentary, Kain said he witnessed two of his friends overdose in the same night. One of those was Henke.

"I panicked,' Kain said. "I knew I was there for two people the same night."

Kain left, and 15 minutes later, he got the call that his friend, Henke, had died.

Nate told documentary producers he struggled with his addiction in El Paso, Texas. He thought if he moved across the country to North Dakota, "there won't be any drugs there."

"It's everywhere," Nate said. "It's just as actively used."

There are other unintended consequences, as Lynsey knows.

She said in the documentary that she can't always remember what her friend B.J. looked like or sounded like, so she used to watch "Lion King" because the teenage Simba laughed like B.J.

"I'd just sit there and cry when I was missing him a lot," Lynsey said as tears filled her eyes.

One night, Lynsey met a man in River Cinema in East Grand Forks who gave her money to buy him drugs after B.J. asked her to.

Instead of buying the drugs for the guy she met up with, Lynsey took the money to purchase drugs for herself.

B.J. called a few times night, telling her to call him back because it was important. But she never called him back. Later that night, she got a call that B.J. was shot by the man who wanted her to pick up drugs.

"If it wasn't for B.J., I wouldn't be here," Lynsey said. "The exact reason he died is because of my addiction."

Community's responsibility

Grand Forks native MeiLi Smith said she knew she had a daunting task when she was asked by Laurie Betting of UND Health and Wellness to create the documentary featuring these local people.

"I spent a lot of the time during our interviews crying with them," Smith said. "I feel so grateful that they were able to open up to me in the way that they did and that they trusted me enough to share."

The point of the documentary is to get people talking, members of the panel said. That includes local youth, and it's going to be shown at Grand Forks area schools.

"No one talks about this kind of thing the way that they should be," Smith said.

And it's the community's responsibility to address it, the panel said.

"This isn't a law enforcement issue," the officer said. "This isn't a courts issue. This isn't a prison issue. This is a community issue."

"What we need in our communities is a culture change where we don't have a permissive culture of drug abuse," Boe said at the panel.

While there's much more work to be done to help people with addictions in the area, Smith said she is amazed by the impact she's already seen her documentary have.

She said she talked with her neighbor Geoff Gaukler, a Red River High School counselor featured in "Faded," about the documentary the other day.

"He told me there have been more people coming in talking about drug-related issues in the past couple of weeks than there have in the past five years," Smith said.

Panel members said they hoped by opening up discussion in the area that there will be more efforts to find solutions to the region's drug problems.

"Everybody has to pitch in for us to find a solution," U.S. Attorney Christopher Myers said. "We have to come together as one community, one state to fight this battle together."


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