A Superior man was sentenced to seven years in prison and eight years of extended supervision Friday for selling the heroin/fentanyl mix that led to a 2016 overdose death.
Nathan Edward Birkholz, 25, pleaded no contest in Douglas County Circuit Court to one count of first-degree reckless homicide for selling drugs used in the fatal overdose of Neil Christianson, 25, of Superior, on Nov. 25, 2016. Birkholz's conviction is Douglas County’s first for drug-induced homicide in response to the opioid epidemic.
Judge George Glonek sentenced Birkholz to seven years in prison and eight years of extended supervision concurrent with two Douglas County sentences he’s currently serving. He was given credit for more than two years of time that he’s already served. A penalty enhancer charging Birkholz as a repeater was removed as part of the plea agreement.
Glonek accepted the sentence that was jointly recommended by District Attorney Mark Fruehauf and defense attorney Nathan Cockerham. To say a lot of discussion went into the recommendation would be an understatement, the district attorney said.
“When we talked with the family at length, talked with the defense council at length, trying to come up with a number that’s somehow fair and does justice is really tough because there really isn’t a number that can bring the victim back,” Fruehauf said following the hearing.
The attorneys took into account the serious nature of the case and Birkholz’s criminal history — nine prior convictions, four of them felonies. Other factors considered were the precedent-setting nature of the case and the fact that Birkholz took responsibility by making a plea instead of putting the victims through the stress of a trial.
“I totally understand and respect that there are people who are probably going to look at this sentence and think that it’s too light; there are people who are going to look at this sentence and they might think that it’s too harsh,” Fruehauf said. “There are both ends of the spectrum.”
He acknowledged that there is national debate and criticism over using homicide charges to crack down on opioid dealers. This case wasn’t a situation where users were sharing a needle and one died; this was an intentional sale. The drug that was sold led to the death of a 25-year-old man and left ripples in the community.
“I remember when it made the news when the case was charged,” Fruehauf said. “He was a friend and a family member to many, so it really hit a lot of people.”
To date, Douglas County has only filed one drug-induced homicide case, but the problem remains an issue, both nationwide and in the Northland.
Fruehauf said his office would not hesitate to prosecute such cases in the future.
“I do think that for people who sell drugs like this in the community, that’s a choice you’re making and you’re going to have to live with the consequences of that," he said. “And if someone dies, we’re going to prosecute it.”