The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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August 20, 2011

Mother’s pain is warning for young drug users

NORTH MANKATO — Two young men are dead.

Police are pursuing criminal charges because they strongly suspect both overdosed on illegal drugs.

And a mother is begging other young people to avoid making the same mortal mistake made by her son.

If Danny Halvorsen would have seen the pain in his friends’ eyes, heard the screams from his older brother John ordering him to ‘Just wake up’ or had a taste of the pain his mother is now facing, he never would have taken the drugs that likely killed him, Mary Robinson said.

“What I want is for kids to start thinking about what they are taking,” she said. “You think you are having fun, then, all of a sudden, you aren’t here anymore.”

Robinson is Halvorsen’s mother. She swears she never had a clue that her 27-year-old son — who always looked strong, healthy and full of life — was using powerful drugs. Those drugs, which friends told Robinson were prescription pain killers, dropped him on the edge of death in a North Mankato apartment on Aug. 4.

That was just hours after the body of Halvorsen’s friend, 29-year-old Nate Pronk, was found lifeless in the Bell Tower apartments, just a few blocks away. It was already too late for Pronk when paramedics arrived at about noon. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Word about Pronk spread quickly. When Stephanie Walters heard what had happened, she called Zach Halvorsen, Danny’s other older brother, and told him to check on Danny. The brothers had spent the night at her residence in Park Place Apartments on Page Avenue. Pronk had been with them the night before.

Danny Halvorsen was still breathing at that point. But, when Zach Halvorsen checked on him again later, his lips were turning blue. Paramedics were sent to Walters’ apartment at about 1:45 p.m., fewer than two hours after Pronk was found dead, and were able to revive Halvorsen. He was kept alive in the hospital for four more days. He never again showed his mother or brothers any signs of life before being taken off life support at 3:20 p.m. Aug. 8.

Police are still investigating what led up to the deaths, said Lt. Nicole Adams of the North Mankato Police Department. She expects to receive results from Pronk’s toxicology tests by the end of the month. Halvorsen’s results will take longer because he died later.

There is enough evidence for Adams to “strongly suspect” both men were using powerful drugs before they died. The age of the men, the fact that they were together the night before they died and the short time between 911 calls add to that suspicion, she said.

“I do believe they have a connection,” Adams said. “We have no idea what drug at this point. We don’t believe it is even something that came from this area — it possibly came from another city.”

If illegal drugs did contribute to the men’s deaths and investigators are able to determine who provided them, there will be criminal charges requested, Adams said.

Winning and losing

Robinson and a friend of the men, Brock Gardner, have some information about what happened before Aug. 4. Some things they know firsthand. Other information came from Zach and Danny Halvorsen’s friends. Zach Halvorsen declined to comment for this story.

Here is what Robinson and Gardner have pieced together so far:

Sometime during the night of Aug. 2 or the morning of Aug. 3, Danny Halvorsen hit a big jackpot on a casino slot machine. Robinson said she believes they were at Mystic Lake Casino. Gardner said it was a progressive machine and the figure was around $16,000. Pronk had hit two large, but smaller, jackpots during earlier trips to the casino in July.

“Danny called me from the casino at like 7 a.m. in the morning,” Robinson said. “He said they’d won a lot of money and he was really tired. I told him to go back to the hotel and sleep until he had to leave. He said he was going to sleep until 11 a.m.”

Walters, who didn’t immediately return a call from The Free Press, told Robinson that Halvorsen was extremely tired when he returned to Mankato. Both Danny and Zach Halvorsen had been staying with Walters, who is the sister of Danny’s best friend, while they looked for an apartment.

Danny Halvorsen and Pronk both worked for Gardner at FLS Connect, a political call center in Mankato. They had taken jobs at the business’ facility in St. Cloud, Halvorsen as a branch manager, but recently returned to Mankato.

Even though he was tired, Halvorsen played in two softball games the night of Aug. 3. He worked roofing jobs during the day and played softball five nights a week. Friends told Robinson her son took a dose of morphine before playing that night.

Gardner said both Pronk and Halvorsen had been using prescription drugs, mostly pain killers that had been obtained illegally, for a long time. The use was periodic at first but became more frequent during recent months, he said. Gardner spent more time with Halvorsen and was becoming concerned about his drug use.

After Halvorsen’s softball game, he went out for drinks. Halvorsen and Pronk returned to Walters’ apartment and talked outside for awhile before Pronk walked to Bell Tower. Halvorsen used the computer before going to bed at about 1 a.m.

Jolting call

Robinson was at work when someone called her from the hospital at about 2 p.m. Aug. 4. The caller told her to get to the Emergency Room and a doctor would explain everything.

When she arrived, police officers were the first to talk to her. They asked several questions before providing any clues about what had happened.

“When they were questioning me, they told me right away that Nate was dead and Danny was in the Emergency Room,” Robinson said. “I was thinking it was a car accident.”

Hospital staff attempted to prepare her before she went to see her son in the Intensive Care Unit. Everything is a blur now, but she remembers there were a lot of tubes and his body looked awful.

Doctors had to wait until the drugs Halvorsen had taken, as well as the drugs that had been given to him by hospital staff, were out of his system before using a brain scan to search for signs of life. There were a total of three scans. All showed nothing. Halvorsen was taken off life support after some of his organs were donated.

Many friends, including Gardner, stayed with Halvorsen and his family during those last few days. The deaths have provided a dose of reality for all of them, Gardner said.

“Everyone is taking it hard,” he said. “It was unexpected. It was a shock that something could put them out of commission like that.

“I knew them on a different level than just as people who abused drugs,” Gardner said. “They weren’t drug addicts to me, they were friends. They might have been going through a down time, but I always thought they’d pull through it, look back and say, ‘That was a stupid time in our lives.’”

He also said he wasn’t surprised their parents were not aware of what they were doing. Young people can be good at hiding that side of their lives from family.

Karen Pronk said she is waiting to see her son’s toxicology results before reaching a conclusion that his death resulted from drug use. The only report she has been made aware of so far is that Nate Pronk died as a result of fluid in his lungs.

She also said she understands why Robinson is making the public aware of Halvorsen’s story. Karen Pronk doesn’t want other parents to go through what she’s going through.

Robinson said that is exactly why she has come forward.

“I feel an obligation to parents and young people out there, but I don’t want people to think that my son, Danny, was an out-of-control drug addict,” she said. “I just don’t understand it and I never will.”

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