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Eyewitness News Special: No Good Answers

Posted at: 11/08/2012 3:31 AM
Updated at: 11/08/2012 1:53 PM
By: Darren Danielson

A tragic car crash last month claimed the lives of two young Northland men.   It also added fuel to a discussion over methadone treatment here.  29-year-old Mitch Lingren and 25-year-old Zach Gamache were killed on a stretch of highway in Carlton County.   The driver accused of causing it was impaired by methadone.  Methadone is a substitute drug used in the recovery process.  Supporters say methadone is an effective treatment for addicts.  But, the accident raises many questions.  In this Eyewitness News Special Report, a grieving family finds, there are no good answers.

 
"He really loved his job - he loved being outdoors", said Zach's mother, Kathy Lingren.  "And he was a good fisherman, a really good fisherman", adds his father, Dave.  
 
Looking through the pictures, "I love this one of him and his sister in Duluth in the sand at park point just having fun in the sand", says Kathy ... You see the love they have for their family. 
 
Glancing at another picture, Kathy remembers, "He is surrounding his kids and his wife with support and love, and trying to make their life as good as it can be." 
 
But just under the surface, their grief is hiding. 
 
"He had a beautiful smile, great blue eyes." his father Dave chokes out. 
 
Dave and Kathy lost that smile and those great blue eyes the morning of October 1st.  Mitch and co-worker Zach Gamache were on the job for Carlton County - driving a work truck on highway 210.  They were both killed when an oncoming car crossed the center line.
 
"These are Mitch's two children, Jordan and Lilly" says Kathy, picking up another photo from the coffee table.
 
According to the criminal complaint - the driver and passenger in the other car were returning from a methadone clinic in Brainerd.  The complaint says the driver showed signs of controlled substance impairment.   It says a bottle of methadone was found at the scene along with a needle and  syringe.  The complaint also says the driver had needle marks on her arms - she has been charged with two counts of vehicular homicide.  
 
"This is when Lilly was born, he was so excited to have a little girl to go along with Jordan", Kathy says as she hands the photo to Dave.  "Yes, that's a proud father in the hospital", he adds. 
 
As hard as it is to talk about losing Mitch, they know it's the only way to move forward.  How do they know this?  Because the Lingrens have lost a child before. 
 
"Nick died at age five just after his fifth birthday in 1980 of a brain tumor. he was our oldest, Mitch was our youngest", Kathy tells me. 
 
Emotions so palpable ... and yet, made even more complicated by questions now surfacing about methadone.  Questions not just from grieving parents.
 
State Senator Roger Reinert describes what it was like finding out information for himself about methadone treatment.  "Virtually everything was like, you've got to be kidding me - this can't be true - oh, it really is true!" 
 
"This is a huge problem in our state and it seems to be a bigger problem in this State than other States", says State Representative, Tom Huntley. 
 
Red flags were already being raised about methadone even before the accident.  Duluth's Lake Superior treatment center had it's license revoked this fall after the State found numerous and repeated violations.  Those included excessive counselor caseloads - not monitoring take home doses and failing to adequately document treatment and procedures.  
The center has appealed the revocation and is still operating while it's case is being reviewed.
 
The clinics in Duluth and Brainerd are among 15 methadone treatment centers across Minnesota.  It costs taxpayers over 7-million dollars every year for all these clinics to operate in the State.     
 
"We've spent some 45-million dollars as the state of Minnesota from 2005 to 2011 over six years for people who don't have insurance that covers this treatment - that's allot of money ya know?" Senator Reinert says. 
 
While methadone treatment and programs are now getting a lot of scrutiny by local and State officials, families like the Lingrens are just trying to make sense of what happened. 
 
Dave Lingren says, "As far as the issues surrounding the accident, I guess we have allot of questions.  We don't have any answers, just lots of questions.
 
As Dave and Kathy gaze out on the yard Mitch played in as a little boy, questions linger and Dave says, "Hopefully some of those questions will be answered over time.  It won't bring Mitch back, we just have to live with that, with a hole in our lives."
 
The Lingren and Gamache families may not have answers to some of their biggest questions, but their loss is beginning to bring change.  We'll tell you about that - tomorrow on Eyewitness News at ten.