After 6 years, questions linger in Grand Forks bar fight death
GRAND FORKS -- A 2007 brawl outside a Grand Forks bar that left one man dead remains unsolved and still presents enough of a mystery to garner the attention of a national network.
NBC's "Dateline" news show will air a segment on the case tonight.
Part of the interest in the 6-year-old case might have something to do with the date of the crime and clothing of the suspects. It was, after all, Oct. 27, the Saturday before Halloween.
"It was a little bit of chaos," said Grand Forks police Detective Mike Sholes. "All of the people involved were in costume."
The incident resulted in the death of Joel Lovelien, 38, and the arrest and trial of Travis Stay, a 24-year-old University of North Dakota student who was eventually acquitted of murder in the case.
The costumes worn by those involved in the fight added confusion to the initial crime investigation.
In the parking lot of the Broken Drum bar in Grand Forks, not far from Lovelien's body, a piece of a yellow costume was found, soaked in the victim's blood. Police eventually matched it to the costume Stay was wearing that night. He had been dressed as a lion.
"Travis Stay's entire costume was soaked in Joel Lovelien's blood," Sholes said.
There were three different blood splatter patterns on the costume, according to Sholes, including a fine mist, indicating Stay was close to Lovelien's body as the blows were delivered. The blood on the costume was "consistent with Travis over the top of Lovelien, striking him," Sholes said.
A citizen was later approached by Stay, still dripping with blood, and told police Stay started swinging. But Stay was "so drunk and so beaten up" the attack was futile, according to Sholes.
Alcohol contributed to the confusion over the events of the brawl.
Stay didn't remember a crucial hour-and-15-minute period when the beating of Lovelien took place, and no one was around when the fatal incident was carried out.
The intoxication of many involved in the events of that night, including Lovelien, who showed a fairly high blood-alcohol concentration, according to Sholes, and Stay's relatively small size played a role in the jury's decision that he couldn't have been the attacker. His demeanor helped as well.
"He was a very kind person to deal with; he was a very cooperative person to deal with," Sholes said. "Here we've got this nursing (student) who's small ... but Joel Lovelien, he's not steady on his feet either. And if someone takes a run at you, you're going to go down and hit your head. You're not going to be able to fight back and you're going to drown in your own blood. Just like what happened to Joel."
Stay said in an interview shortly after his acquittal that he knew he was innocent throughout the trial.
"I guess I've known the whole time I'm innocent," he said. "I'm just fortunate enough for the jury to have seen through and seen my innocence."
Whatever the jury saw, Sholes said, was a mirage.
"It was good police work, it was good prosecution, but as long as there's any doubt. ... I don't believe a sober Travis Stay could do it, but I'm convinced an intoxicated Travis Stay could."