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Crime & Courts

Sand Point men charged with manslaughter after counterfeit pills are linked to overdoses, one fatal

Sand Point in July 2015. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Two Sand Point men were charged with manslaughter after two people overdosed, one fatally, on what police said were counterfeit pills that may have been contaminated with fentanyl.

The overdoses happened over two days:

On Aug. 31, police in Sand Point, a commercial fishing community on Popof Island in the Aleutians East Borough, found an “unresponsive” man at a home. He showed signs of a drug overdose and was flown off the island for medical treatment, police said.

The next day, police were called to a gear shed near a fish processing plant to check on an unconscious woman.

Raylene Kochuten of King Cove, 26, died at the Sand Point clinic of a suspected drug overdose, the Sand Point Department of Public Safety in a post on its Facebook page.

Emergency responders “fought hard and long to save these individuals,” the Facebook post said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the young woman who didn’t make it.”

Jeremy Krone, 37, and Michael Gundersen, 44, of Sand Point have been charged with manslaughter and drug offenses related to the overdoses, according to the Department of Public Safety.

During the police investigation of Kochuten’s death, Gunderson allegedly told police he had purchased four 30-mg Percocet pills from Krone, according to an affidavit in the criminal complaint.

He gave half of one of the pills to a friend -- the man who overdosed and had to be flown off the island to an Anchorage hospital.

The next day, Gundersen sold Percocets to another man -- marking up the price to $800 -- even though he was aware that his friend had overdosed the day before after ingesting only half a pill, the affidavit says.

Kochuten later took one of the supposed Percocets and died.

Police warned that the pills may still be circulating in the community.

“The drugs taken were small blue 30 milligram counterfeit Oxycodone Hydrochloride pills,” the statement said. “Some of these pills may be contaminated by Fentanyl and are extremely dangerous.”

“DO NOT take the pills,” police said.

Last week, the Eastern Aleutians Tribes, a tribally operated health corporation that serves Southwest Alaska communities from Whittier to Adak -- including Sand Point -- sued Purdue Pharma, a major opioid maker, in federal court. The lawsuit also names as defendants dozens of other opioid manufacturers and retailers.

The suit says the opioid crisis has “taken a heavy toll on Alaska,” and especially the Alaska Native population served by the Eastern Aleutians Tribes.

The lawsuit seeks to “recover damages and seek other redress from harm caused by the Defendants’ improper marketing, sales, distribution, dispensing, and reporting practices related to prescription opioids.”

Hundreds of states, cities, towns and tribes have sued opioid manufacturers, saying the pharmaceutical industry should bear responsibility for the costs of addiction and overdose-related expenses.

The community in Sand Point had “an opioid issue” and problems with other drugs when he arrived in 2017, police chief Hal Henning said in an email Wednesday.

A full-time investigator assigned to the Alaska State Troopers’ Airport Interdiction Team in Anchorage has reduced the flow of drugs into Sand Point and surrounding villages, Henning said.

He said Kochuten’s death was the first fatal opioid overdose in the community in his two years with the department.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Michael Gundersen’s name.

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