Methadone found in car involved in fatal crash

News Tribune, Pine Journal staff, Duluth News Tribune
Vanessa Rae Brigan
Vanessa Rae Brigan, 26, is facing two felony charges of criminal vehicular homicide while under the influence of a controlled substance. (Carlton County Jail photo)

The 26-year-old Cloquet woman charged Wednesday in connection with a crash that killed two Carlton County Highway Department workers was on her way back from a regular visit to a methadone clinic in Brainerd, authorities said.

Bottles of prescribed liquid methadone and syringes were found on the scene of the three-vehicle crash that occurred Monday about 8:45 a.m. between Cromwell and Wright on Minnesota Highway 210.

Vanessa Rae Brigan was charged Wednesday in State District Court in Carlton County with two counts of criminal vehicular homicide.

According to the criminal complaint against Brigan, she and her passenger, Jesse David McMillen, 25, each had received a bottle of methadone at the Brainerd clinic early that morning and were returning to Cloquet.

Law enforcement officers investigating the scene found a used needle with a small amount of liquid, believed to be methadone, in Brigan’s car and found a bottle of methadone prescribed to Brigan that day and another syringe in a ditch about 10 feet from Brigan’s car, the complaint said. The items were taken as evidence and sent to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for analysis.

Methadone prescribed through treatment clinics is meant to be drunk, not injected, methadone treatment professionals say.

The two county workers killed were Zachary M. Gamache, 25, of Esko and Mitchell D. Lingren, 29, of Duluth.

According to the State Patrol, the crash happened when the eastbound 1996 Oldsmobile Aurora driven by Brigan was weaving before it crossed the centerline and hit Gamache’s westbound 2004 Ford pickup, a Carlton County Highway Department truck, in its left rear tire. The axle on Gamache’s truck broke and his vehicle veered into oncoming traffic. It sideswiped a 2006 Ford 350 pickup and then hit the gooseneck trailer it was pulling.

Gamache and his passenger, Lingren, were ejected from their truck.

When officers arrived at the scene, the two men were lying motionless in the road; officers and first responders confirmed that they were dead.

The driver of the second Ford pickup, Christopher G. Hecker, 42, of Nisswa, Minn., escaped with no apparent injury.

Authorities said McMillen fled the scene and was later caught and arrested on an outstanding warrant. A state trooper said McMillen told him that after the crash he got out of the car, saw the two motionless men in the road, drank his bottle of methadone and left the scene.

McMillen told a trooper that he and Brigan regularly traveled to the Brainerd methadone clinic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for liquid methadone, according to the complaint. He said he and Brigan knew they were not supposed to drive when using methadone.

When Brigan was booked into the Carlton County jail, officers observed “fresh needle track marks” on her arms.

A search of Minnesota court records found more than 30 charges — many of them traffic-related, including more than one driving after revocation — in 22 cases on file against Brigan. She was convicted of driving after revocation on July 5 and pleaded guilty to having no proof of insurance on July 26.

McMillen also has more than 30 criminal counts in 22 cases on his record. The charges include theft, assault, drug use, underage consumption, driving after revocation and fleeing a peace officer. He is being held on a Duluth probation violation charge, Carlton County officials say.

Judge Dale Wolf set Brigan’s bail at $80,000, ruled her ineligible for pretrial release and said the court will appoint a public defender for her. Her next appearance was set for Oct. 10.

In arguing for lower bail, attorney Nichole Eickoff, who represented Brigan at Wednesday’s arraignment, said Brigan has three young children, ages 8, 9 and 11, who are living with her sister while Brigan is in jail.

Gamache and Lingren were on their way to Wright to lay out the directional lines for a scheduled culvert replacement there, said Wayne Olson, director of the Carlton County Transportation Department.

He said Gamache, the driver, tried to avoid a collision by squeezing to the right side of the roadway as far as possible, but the truck could not escape to the ditch because the guardrail prevented it.

State Patrol records show their vehicle’s airbags deployed but neither man was wearing a seatbelt.

“We do have a policy in place requiring our employees to abide by seatbelt laws and we go over safety issues a lot,” Olson said. “We expect that all of our drivers abide by the guidelines."

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