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In last-minute guilty plea, fourth defendant in slaying outside Fargo bar avoids trial

FARGO--In a hearing filled with dramatic pauses and unspoken emotions, Jason Oien pleaded guilty Tuesday, Sept. 27, to a manslaughter charge in the fatal beating of Joey Gaarsland last year outside a Fargo bar.

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Jason Oien appears Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, in Cass County District Court in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO-In a hearing filled with dramatic pauses and unspoken emotions, Jason Oien pleaded guilty Tuesday, Sept. 27, to a manslaughter charge in the fatal beating of Joey Gaarsland last year outside a Fargo bar.

The plea came just as Oien was to stand trial on one count of murder and three counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault in the beating death of Gaarsland outside of Rick's Bar in the early morning hours of May 17, 2015.

In addition to Oien, 34, three other man were charged in Gaarsland's death and with committing assaults on Gaarsland, his wife, Laura, and Matthew Breitbach, a bystander who tried to protect the Gaarslands when they were attacked outside the bar.

The other defendants entered guilty pleas earlier this year and agreed to testify at Oien's trial, which was scheduled to begin with jury selection Tuesday morning.

As Oien entered the courtroom Tuesday, he made eye contact with a group of family members sitting in the courtroom.

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He gave the group a long look of resignation and shrugged his shoulders before sitting at the defendant's table with his two attorneys, one of whom, Rhiannon Lorraine Gorham, told Judge Tom Olson that at "the 11th hour" a settlement had been reached in the case.

Gorham said Oien would plead guilty to one count of manslaughter and two Class C felony counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault.

One Class B felony count of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, the one involving Joey Gaarsland, was dismissed.

When the judge asked Oien for his plea on the manslaughter charge, the wording of which states that Oien "recklessly caused" Gaarsland's death, Oien paused, sighed heavily, and paused again before saying "guilty."

When he was asked for his plea to the assault charge involving Laura Gaarsland, Oien paused for many minutes and began conferring with his lawyers in hushed tones.

Gorham eventually asked for and was granted a recess to speak at length with her client.

The defense team also stepped outside the courtroom to speak to Oien's family.

After many minutes, Oien returned to the courtroom and pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault charges relating to Laura Gaarsland and Breitbach, with Gorham explaining that all of Oien's pleas were intended as Alford pleas, meaning he did not admit to the conduct but acknowledged that given the state's case there was a significant likelihood a jury would find him guilty.

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When Judge Olson asked for the factual basis for the guilty pleas, Assistant Cass County State's Attorney Ryan Younggren gave a brief answer, stating that a fight occurred at Rick's Bar, 2721 Main Ave., on May 17, 2015, and Oien was one of a group of men involved in the fight that resulted in Joey Gaarsland's death and injuries to two others.

Oien will be sentenced at a later date.

The co-defendants in the case - Scott Moen, 36, Nicholas Morris, 35, and Jessy Olson, 36 - are also awaiting sentencing.

Moen, who pleaded guilty to one count of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 17.

Morris and Olson each pleaded guilty to one count of accomplice to murder and two counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault.

Morris is also scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 17. Olson's sentencing is set for Oct. 31.

Details of what the attorneys will recommend at Oien's sentencing were not released and Gorham declined to speak at length about the case following Tuesday's hearing.

Assistant Cass County State's Attorney Tristan Van de Streek said prosecutors are pleased with the results of Tuesday's hearing. He said he hopes the Gaarsland family will receive comfort from the fact all of the defendants in the case took responsibility for their actions to some degree.

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One question that is to be decided by the time Oien is sentenced in late November or early December is what the maximum penalties will be for the charges pleaded to by Oien.

A manslaughter charge normally carries a maximum penalty of 10 years and the Class C felony assault charges carry maximum penalties of five years.

Prosecutors will argue that based on his criminal record Oien should be sentenced as a habitual offender, which would raise the potential maximum penalty on the manslaughter charge to 20 years and the maximum penalty on each assault charge to 10 years.

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Joey Gaarsland was the victim of an assault outside of Rick's Bar in Fargo on May 17, 2015, police say. Special to The Forum

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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