FARGO — Mary Locken was aiming to fire a warning shot.
This single, working mom wanted to put fear in the hearts of her teenage sons who'd both been caught using pot and pills. So she called the Fargo police and made a request, one they had never heard before.
She wanted a police dog to sniff the rooms of her house for drugs. Officers obliged, but no stash was detected, only residue.
The search failed to scare her sons, Joe and Nick Horski. Neither did any of the other hard-nosed tactics she unleashed over the years: confiscating their cellphones, kicking them out of the house, asking the police to arrest them, handing over substances as evidence.
Mary, 54, acknowledges her tactics sound harsh, but she was trying to teach her sons the real-life consequences that can come with drug use. Nevertheless, they continued on parallel paths toward full-blown drug addictions.
Swept up in the nation's opioid crisis, Joe and Nick started using heroin and fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid. As their addictions became potentially deadly, their mother's tough love was unrelenting.
Mary knew there could be downsides to pushing her sons into the gears of the criminal justice system, a system not widely hailed for its ability to treat the disease of addiction. She also understood why a parent would want to keep a child's drug problem private. "I don't think there's a right or wrong answer," she said.
Ultimately, she reached a conclusion parents don't often reach: Turning her sons in was the best way to help them.
"My intuitive instincts told me that's what I needed to do," she said.
After Mary turned in her older son, Joe, multiple times, he wound up spending 10 months in the North Dakota State Penitentiary on felony drug possession convictions.
Joe was released from prison in March. Now 23 years old, he's working as a waiter and plans to start attending Minnesota State University Moorhead this summer.
For the first time in a while, his mom envisions good things for his future.
"I have hope for Joe. I never thought I'd say that. I thought Joe was gone," she said. "I think he's gonna be OK."
"Nick, the jury's out," she added. "Nick is still so fragile."
'Stop the overdoses'
The night of May 13, 2016, Mary had to call 911.
She came home to find Nick unconscious in the sunroom of her house in south Fargo. Her 20-year-old son's lips were blue, and he was holding a white nasal spray bottle.
Mary tried shaking him, but he didn't wake up. Several minutes went by. No response. "He was passed out, looked like he was dead," she said.
Nick had overdosed at home before, so Mary was ready with naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdoses. She rolled him onto the floor, put him on his side and was about to inject the naloxone when he came to. Finally.
As far as Mary knew, this was the second time Nick had overdosed in the past week. She would later learn it was the fourth time.
Nick was in the midst of a deep dive into his opioid addiction, and whether he would resurface alive was in question. Mary was at a loss on how to help him.
Even with a job as a lawyer at Bell Bank in Fargo, she couldn't afford the high price of inpatient addiction treatment. Nick had been through outpatient treatment, and it hadn't worked. He had also been prescribed the drug Suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone that's meant to block opioid cravings. But he learned to cheat it and continued to use opioids.
Mary knew something had to change. Nick's next overdose could be his last. But how could she keep him alive? She couldn't watch him 24/7. The only option, as she saw it, was jail.
Mary pleaded with the police to lock Nick up. The trouble was that the Fargo Police Department's general policy is not to arrest overdose victims.
Though, sometimes the police make exceptions, and Nick's case was one of those.
"Our agency got together and decided the only way to possibly save a life here is to do something which we normally don't do," Lt. Shannon Ruziska said. "The goal wasn't to put him in jail. It was to stop the overdoses."
Sixty-nine overdoses were reported last year in Fargo, and Nick was the only victim arrested, Ruziska said. The vast majority of those overdoses involved opioids, and 15 of them were fatal.
The city is on track to see fewer overdoses this year. So far in 2017, there have been 10 reports of overdoses; four of which resulted in deaths. At this point in 2016, there had been 25 overdose reports, including six deaths.
The night Nick overdosed in his mom's sunroom, he was evaluated at Essentia Hospital and later booked into the Cass County Jail for possessing fentanyl.
It would be the first felony conviction on his criminal record. His mom knew the felony could hinder his prospects for finding a job or housing, but she had a greater worry. She wanted him to live.
"I know Nick would be dead today," she said. "He'd be dead if I hadn't employed the tough love."
'Sentencing to treatment'
During this year's legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill that gives the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation the ability to prioritize the admission of inmates, and through that process, more of them may be sent to treatment rather than prison. The bill directed $7 million to community-based behavioral health programs that provide treatment.
"Treatment should be available without going to prison," said Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, who's director of public policy for Prairie St. John's Psychiatric Hospital. "There should be sentencing to treatment, not a sentencing to prison, for many more cases."
After hearing about the struggles of Joe and Nick Horski, Mathern stressed that North Dakota needs to do more to stop substance abuse in the first place. "These two boys were into opioid addiction for a myriad of reasons, and we haven't done enough in society to prevent that from happening," he said.
Joe started smoking marijuana when he was about 15 years old. He also began snorting prescription opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.
When prescription drugs became harder to find, Joe and his friends made the tragically common switch to heroin. He first tried the drug at age 18. For a few years, he occasionally snorted or smoked it. By 21, he was using daily.
Addiction crept into his life to the point that heroin consumed his whole existence. "It's like a dance," he said. "It takes time."
Joe eventually figured out how to buy heroin and fentanyl through the dark web, the underworld of the internet. Joe believes he and a friend were some of the first people in the Fargo area to start using fentanyl.
The drugs would be delivered through the mail. The fentanyl would come as a powder so powerful it had to be handled with gloves and diluted with water.
Nick also started buying opioids through the dark web, and one day his mom found a measuring cup under his bed. "I freaked out," Mary said. "I knew that was nefarious. I knew it was drug-related."
'His eventual passing'
Joe and Nick had different circles of friends, and they began using opioids independently. Still, Joe feels somewhat responsible for his younger brother's addiction. "I made drugs a topic in my household," Joe said. "I was the one who introduced it."
Despite their drug use, Joe and Nick both managed to finish high school and get accepted to college. Joe graduated from South, and Nick did so at Davies.
"They're very intelligent," their mom said. "Due to the addiction, their early years in college were completely wasted."
Joe attended the University of North Dakota for a year before transferring to North Dakota State University. Nick went to NDSU for 1½ years. Both of them ended up dropping out.
Their mom had a similar experience in her youth. She had what she calls "a love affair with booze" during her early days at UND. So much so that she flunked out of school. She took a year off, got sober on her own and then returned to her studies.
A major factor in Joe finding sobriety was Suboxone. The medication took away his cravings for opioids. In prison, he underwent treatment, and he's emerged focused on his future.
He's now in outpatient treatment, and he's eager to start school where he plans to study computer science. "I really want to do something in cybersecurity someday," he said. "I hope the felonies on my record don't hold me back."
While Joe is looking ahead, he believes he could still be hit with federal drug charges on top of the charges he's already faced in the state court system. Brett Shasky, a federal prosecutor in Fargo who handles drug cases, declined to speak to whether that's a possibility.
Another cloud looming over Joe and his mother is the uncertainty around Nick's future. Right now, Nick is serving a two-year sentence on a felony drug possession charge. Whether he'll resume using drugs after his release is a burning question.
Joe and his mother hesitate to compare addictions, but they feel Nick's is more severe, more dangerous. Joe has never injected opioids, and he's never overdosed. Nick has done both.
"We have on some level almost been preparing for his eventual passing away," Joe said.
On a drizzly night this spring, Nick sat in the Cass County Jail wearing orange scrubs. Behind thick glass, he cradled a phone by his ear and talked openly about his addiction and his family.
Nick first tried pot when he was 14 years old, and he moved on to harder drugs like cocaine and ecstasy. He hadn't used prescription opioids, and then one day when he was 19, a co-worker asked if he wanted to buy some heroin.
"I just figured it was another drug to do," he said.
Within a matter of six to eight months, his life revolved around drugs, mainly heroin and fentanyl. He stopped going to class, got kicked out of his house and started pawning his belongings to support his daily habit.
Nick doesn't blame Joe for his drug use. Nick is certain he would have ended up addicted even if his brother hadn't used opioids.
Boredom led Nick to drugs, so did the crowd he hung out with. And looking back, he believes he used drugs to cope with the death of his father, Tim Horski.
Tim and Mary divorced when their sons were in grade school. Despite their split, the parents agreed tough love was the way to deal with their sons' drug use. This created a rift between Tim and his sons after they were caught using drugs as teenagers.
Nick grew up playing lacrosse, a sport he loved. When he was a freshman in high school, he and his father were at a lacrosse tournament out of town. They were relaxing in a hotel room when his 50-year-old dad went to bed not feeling well. A few minutes later he had a fatal heart attack.
"It was tough to see that," Nick said. "We had the funeral like the week before Father's Day."
On Feb. 9, Nick's probation officer called Mary, saying her son had violated the terms of his probation. He had been using again.
Mary drove Nick to the probation office, and he's been in jail since then. He's now waiting to be transferred to the state penitentiary.
Keeping a promise she made to her sons years ago, Mary has not visited Nick once since he was incarcerated this year, and she hasn't accepted any of his phone calls. "I've really cut him loose," she said.
Nick, who spent his 21st birthday in jail, was initially upset about his mother turning him in to authorities. But after clearing his head in jail, he came to understand that she did it out of love. For this, he's grateful.
"If she didn't call the cops on me, it's very likely that wouldn't have ended well," Nick said. "I have come to the realization that if she had not, I would very likely be dead by now."
After a stretch of sobriety, Joe, too, has come to accept his mom's tough love, though he doesn't know if he would do the same as a parent.
"I can't experience the pain and suffering and the embarrassment and the shame that she has went through, but I can empathize with what she did," Joe said. "I believe that she believes she did the right thing in a situation where there is no right answer. I can't hold it against her."
Mary is cautiously hopeful for Nick's future, but she doesn't believe he's fully embraced treatment and recovery. However, during his interview at the jail, he showed a desire to undergo treatment while in prison. But he knows that recovery in a locked facility is a world apart from recovery on the outside.
"Ultimately, when I get out of prison, I'm going to have to make choices on my own," he said. "I look forward to facing that day."