On Saturday, October 27, 2007, Joel Lovelien, a 38-year-old Technical Systems Analyst from Grand Forks, North Dakota, accompanied his fiancée, Heather Eastling, to the Broken Drum Bar and Grill to celebrate Halloween. Joel wore a green jersey and went as a player of his favorite hockey team, the Fighting Sioux, while Heather dressed as a mechanic. They had a few drinks and played blackjack- enjoying the seasonal festivities and being together.
That same night- the Saturday before Halloween- a large group of around 40-50 young people had chartered a party bus to chauffeur them around “the city’s many watering holes.” The bus eventually stopped at the Broken Drum bar while Joel and Heather were there.
Around 11:30 pm, Joel stepped outside to take a phone call. Upon returning to Heather, Joel mentioned that “somebody got left by the bus” and that he was going to step back outside “to go check on him.” He kissed Heather and went back outside.
Only a few moments later, a bar patron came running inside and yelled for someone to call 911. Heather would soon discover that it was Joel who needed emergency assistance. She found him laying unresponsive in the parking lot. He was covered in blood from what appeared to be a head injury.
Joel was rushed to the hospital, but would tragically be pronounced dead from his injuries. Doctors determined that he had been severely beaten– bones in his face were broken and he had ultimately choked on his own blood.
Though the party bus had headed to the next destination by the time police arrived, there were still around 80 people partying at the bar. After interviews with bar patrons, authorities had established a colorful abundance of potential witnesses. Described primarily by their Halloween attire, a dramatis personæ of inebriated characters emerged: a drunken lion, a weeping clown, an aggressive cowboy, a hunter, a gangsta rapper, and a construction worker.
But, which of them, if any, had murdered Joel Lovelien? After a well-publicized trial, and over 9 years without any further developments, no one has been convicted of Joel’s death. Though many people admit to being ‘a part of the equation’ that night, none have provided a reliable narrative of the entirety of what actually happened. The story is told in drunken pieces and the rowdy characters are all costumed. And, most importantly, no one has been made to take any responsibility for Joel’s tragic death.
A Brawl at the Bar
Authorities quickly tracked down the upset clown, identified as 22-year-old Jon Deziel, who officers observed crying on “two occasions” and noted that “his hands were shaking.” According to police reports, Jon stated, “I guess things got out of hand tonight.”
Next, authorities located 23-year-old Bryce Larson, who had been dressed as a cowboy that night, and was described as having “organized” the party bus. Bryce gave them an incorrect name and birthdate. He quickly became “physically aggressive” and had to be handcuffed by officers.
Bryce also allegedly asked investigators an interesting question early on in the interview: Had the guy that died been wearing a green shirt with the initials UND (University of North Dakota) on it? (If Bryce did ask this question, he was certainly describing Joel’s hockey jersey.)
According to the detective’s report, Bryce then admitted to “[seeing] a large guy wearing a UND Fighting Sioux jersey in the parking lot.” He said that this man “had blood on his face” but no “significant injuries.” However, during the subsequent trial, Bryce would go on to patently deny that he had ever made these comments.
The next day, after all parties had sobered up, police learned of a violent altercation which may have precipitated, or possibly prompted, the murder of Joel Lovelien.
The men from the party bus claimed that an unknown man, dressed in a homemade lion costume, had “grabbed [a member of their group] by the collar and pulled him to the ground” without provocation. The man (that was violently pulled to the ground by the lion) was identified as James Wavra, 22, and had ironically been dressed as a hunter that night.
The hunter and the lion had struggled on the ground for a bit. The lion threw a punch at James but missed, while James threw a punch and connected with the lion’s face. During his court testimony, James further “recalled hitting the man [dressed as a lion] a total of one or two times and kicking him in the shoulder or the side of his face.”
After the fight was broken up, cowboy Bryce told the drunken guy in the lion suit that “he [wasn’t allowed to] get back on the bus.”
The Gangsta & The Construction Worker
Later on, Bryce, along with two of his friends, again attempted to confront the guy in the lion costume and “give [him] some grief.” The friends accompanying Bryce were later identified as Mitchell Dahlen, 23, who was wearing a “gangsta” rapper costume, and Josh Deziel, 23, who was costumed as a construction worker.
However, according to their court testimonies, neither Bryce, Mitchell, nor Josh would exchange any further words with the man dressed as a lion, because big Joel Lovelien, in his bright green hockey jersey, had now appeared at the lion’s side.
Instead, they spoke with Lovelien but insisted that the “conversation wasn’t heated.” Mitchell, a devoted Gophers hockey fan, reportedly joked about the rivalry between his team and the Fighting Sioux, saying “We were laughing about it, just saying, can’t wait till they play next.” After that, the three men insist they got back on the bus.
The Lion Comes Forward
Only two days after the altercation, a 23-year-old nursing student named Travis Stay voluntarily sought out detectives after hearing they were searching for a man dressed in a yellow lion costume. Travis said he had been punched by a man dressed as a hunter in the parking lot of the Broken Drum that night. He admitted that he had been drunk and could not remember much, but was adamant that he had not hurt anyone that night.
Travis was soon arrested and charged with the murder of Joel Lovelien. Prosecutors argued that Travis had been “the bruised and angry loser of a fistfight, who attacked the Good Samaritan who’d come to his aid.” Travis, however, consistently insisted upon his innocence, stating:
“I think that they beat us both up.”
Facts and Ancillary Information
Lacking a known witness to the murder of Joel Lovelien, the authorities were unable to establish many concrete facts relating to the beating. The following details were found:
- Detectives quickly discovered yellow fabric, which appeared to be a homemade paw or foot from a Halloween costume, with Joel’s blood on it at the crime scene. Travis Stay, dressed as a lion, was determined to have left a piece of his costume near Joel’s body.
- Joel Lovelien’s blood was found on Travis’s hoodie sweatshirt and brown cargo pants. A blood splatter expert, called by the prosecution, testified that the stains were “consistent with impacts delivered as the defendant stood straddling a prostrate [Joel],” but acknowledged that the victim “who died choking on his own blood, could have [coughed] blood onto [Travis].”
The coroner that examined Joel’s body, however, testified that he had gum in his mouth and she “[expected] that the gum would have been coughed out,” if he had been coughing enough to produce splatter.
- The coroner declared that Joel was killed by choking from severe head injuries caused by blunt force trauma. It was noted that Joel’s “injuries were limited to his head, face and upper torso” and he did not have “offensive” hand injuries from fighting. The coroner testified that its “more likely punching caused the injuries” to Joel’s face, but could not rule out that they may have been made by “a foot or a fairly broad object without well-defined edges.”
The coroner also mentioned that no blood was found on Joel’s jeans, “suggesting that he was not dripping blood when he was standing up.”
Travis Stay’s defense focused on creating reasonable doubt and argued many legitimate circumstantial arguments. However, the prosecution also presented convincing circumstantial evidence as well.
- Travis was physically much smaller than Joel. Travis is 5 foot 9 inches tall and weighed 160 pounds, while Joel was over 6 feet tall and weighed around 240 pounds. Travis’s attorney described him as being “beaten, drunken, small, [and] stumbling” that night and “not capable of inflicting the multiple brutal injuries” to Joel.
- Travis had injuries to his hands, however, a doctor that examined him a week later testified for the defense. The doctor emphasized that the injuries were “superficial abrasions” and that he did not observe “swelling, discoloration, bruising, or stiffness” which would be more consistent with injuries from beating someone. The doctor also testified that he had found “particles of grit” in Travis’s cuts, suggesting they had been caused from a fall.
- Some of the men from the party bus were described as belligerent and confrontational by investigators who sought to speak with them that night.
Bryce, the cowboy, admitted to lying to police about his name and birthdate. He also lied about having witnessed the earlier fight between Travis and James that night. And, according to the police report, Bryce initially stated that he “[saw] a large guy wearing a UND Fighting Sioux jersey in the parking lot, [and] this guy had blood on his face. [Bryce] denied the subject had significant injuries.” However, Bryce denies this statement.
Also, one of the youngest men in the group, Jon- the clown, was visibly distraught and told police, “I guess things got out of hand tonight.” Furthermore, Bryce, Mitchell, and Josh all admit to trying to go back to Travis, and encountering Joel. This would have taken place after the first altercation and just before they got back on the bus.
- Surveillance from the Broken Drum shows, Jon, exiting around three and a half minutes after Joel went to check on Travis. This proved that the bus had not left before Joel went outside, as investigators had initially believed. Furthermore, a bouncer claimed that he saw the party bus while he was helping Heather look for Joel. If the bus were still outside by this time, the men could have all been outside alone with Travis and Joel for up to six minutes.
One of the detectives on the case later admitted that the police were investigating under the presumption that the party bus had left the bar before Joel was beaten. During the trial, the detective said “he would have sought the names of [Bryce’s] friends if he had thought the bus left after [Joel] was assaulted.”
- Authorities found no physical evidence linking any of the men from the party bus to Joel’s attack. Police could not find a witness from the party bus that “[saw] anyone with blood on them, or anyone who looked like they’d been in a fight.”
The case detective emphasized that, “There’s not one stitch of physical evidence to suggest anybody else was involved.”
- In an unexpected twist, a 49-year-old man was walking back to his house (near the Broken Drum bar) that night. This man claimed that Travis, in his lion costume, started to follow him, and eventually, attempted to punch him in the face without provocation.
The man was able to easily move out of the way and noticed that Travis seemed very intoxicated. After going into his home and getting a bat, the man could not find Travis again.
Travis’s attorney countered the additional evidence of his client’s aggression, by saying, “he’s drunk, he’s inept, he’s had two targets to swing at and missed [them] both and fell down.” This interaction, according to his defense, is further proof that Travis was incapable of brutally beating Joel to death.
No Justice For Joel
After a nine-day trial, and five hours of jury deliberation, Travis Stay was acquitted of all charges.
According to reports, the jury felt the prosecution’s timeline of events was most damning to their case. It seemed as though the men from the party bus were not seriously investigated, and were subsequently proven to have had some time- at least a few moments, to attack Joel.
Travis’s attorney publicly faulted “the police for not running down leads in the case, not analyzing the clothing and shoes of the five men the defense accused of killing Lovelien and for not interrogating them the same as Stay.”
The men from the party bus, including the three that Travis’s defense implicated as guilty- Bryce, Mitchell, and Josh, have maintained that they are innocent and had nothing to do with hurting Joel. After the verdict, the prosecution asserted that there was “no other route to go on this case and it’s over.” Authorities do not consider anyone else, other than Travis Stay, responsible for the death of Joel Lovelien.
According to a news report, Travis ultimately pursued law, instead of nursing, as a career because of “his own experience of the legal system,” and became a clerk “for one of the defense attorneys who won his freedom.” His acquittal drew “shrill outbursts and cries of relief” when announced, and Travis has been vocal that he did not kill Joel Lovelien.
However, the unsettling aspect of the verdict is that Travis admittedly could not, and presumably still cannot, remember anything from the time of the murder. Or, virtually anything important from that night, including any details of Joel’s beating (which he was most likely a witness to, independent of his culpability).
After the trial, when asked by reporters if he could have unknowingly killed Joel Lovelien, Travis Stay confidently told them:
“No way. There’s no doubt at all.”
Joel’s family and friends feel differently. Both Heather Eastling, and Joel’s ex-wife, Heidi Marto, gave an interview to media after the trial insisting “there’s no doubt in their minds” that Travis is the one who killed Joel.
Heather further mentioned:
“How do you get blood in the crotch of your pants — not just the front of your crotch, the back crotch, too — if you’re not standing above him while blood is being spattered?”
Neither woman faulted the police or the prosecution, saying that the prosecutors, “put their heart and soul into [the case] for the last 14 months.” Heidi, who is also the mother of Joel’s daughter, spoke of Travis’s acquittal, saying:
“Travis has been given a second chance that Joel will never have.”
A Simple Kind of Man
According to his ex-wife, Joel’s daughter felt, regardless of any potential convictions or acquittals, “no matter what happens … it’s not going to bring her dad back.”
Joel Lovelien is remembered as a loving father. He is described as a “simple, sentimental guy who liked to play golf.” His ex-wife characterized him as:
“…the kind of guy who has always sent my mother flowers on Mother’s Day.”
A juror later commented, that based on the facts presented in the trial, their decision “wasn’t because jurors believed the defense raised reasonable doubt,” but because they became “unsure of [Travis’s] guilt” entirely.
This particular juror summarized the unresolved, and devastating, murder by detailing the following:
“My unrest comes because I don’t want the Lovelien family to think ill of the jury. Our hope is that the police and state’s attorney keep looking into this case. Someone might crack some day. …
Joel is a man I wish I knew, and his family should know I consider Joel a true hero. He is the kind of person that would put down his life for another person’s welfare. May God bless him.
But Travis was a victim in this, too.”