031 - The Murder of Joel Lovelien
Joel Lovelien was born on October 8th, 1969 in Bismarck, North Dakota to Marvin Lovelien and Judy Bergland. Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota and its second largest city, behind only Fargo, and has a population of seventy two thousand. The city is approximately 31.23 square miles and its capitol building juts up as the tallest and most recognizable building. Joel was an active child, described by many as a sensitive boy who loved to make others laugh. Joel would go on to attend West Junior High School in Great Falls from 1982 to 1985. Later in the year, his family would pick up stakes and move to Bagley Minnesota, approximately three hundred miles north east of Biskmarck. Bagley is a small city in Clearwater County which holds a population of just over 1300. It there that Joel attended Bagley High School, graduating in 1988.
After graduation from high school, Joel went on to attend the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks. He pursued and graduated with a degree in Math and Computer science. He began working in Information Services at the Grand Forks Clinic, later going on to be a technical systems analyst for Altru Healthcare System. On March 20th, 1992, Joel married Heidi Hosley and together they had a daughter, whom they named Alexa. He was a doting father who, friends and family all agree, had a real zest for life and loved spending time with his daughter more than anything else. Though his marriage with Heidi ultimately ended, the two remained on amicable terms and co-parented their daughter. When Joel later met and fell in love with Heather Eastling, the two women would be friendly to one another, though following Joel’s death, they would find strength in one another with Heidi later stating “We have a man we loved in common, we have my daughter who she also loves.”
Joel and Heather’s romance was a whirlwind, with both falling fast and hard for one another. Joel had been married before, and though he had a hesitance, Heather was irresistible to him and he knew early on that she was the one he had been looking for, a sweet kind and beautiful grade school teacher. Joel’s obituary described Heather as the love of his life. The two had been together for less than a year, but their bond was so strong they didn’t want to waste any time and became engaged with their wedding was set to take place on August 8th, 2008, or 888. Joel was a kind man with a big heart who cared greatly for his family, which had many divisions to it. Joel had a sister as well as two half brothers and three stepbrothers. In his leisure time he enjoyed golf and bowling as well as spending time with his friends and family. He was a lifelong fan of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux hockey team.
In October of 2007, Joel and Heidi decided to celebrate Halloween by going to a costume party at the Broken Drum Bar and Grill located on North Washington Street in Grand Forks. The party took place on Saturday, October 27th and both had chosen their costumes: Joel would be wearing his green Fighting Sioux hockey jersey while Heather would be dressed up as a mechanic. The two arrived and shared a few drinks together, playing a couple of hands of blackjack while Joel indulged in a cigar. The bar was busier than usual due to the party, and the atmosphere was injected by a large group of younger people. A party bus had arrived, letting out approximately 40 to 50 people in their early twenties. The Broken Drum was just one stop along the way, and for the most part everyone was enjoying the spirit of the evening and dancing in their costumes. Amongst those who stepped off the bus were a cowboy, a lion, a hunter, a Paris Hilton and a gangster.
Interestingly, though North Dakota is far from the most populous state, it has more bars per capita than any other state in the country. This made the party bus rather busy that night, ushering its patrons around from bar to bar. The bus was meant to leave the Broken Drum around 11:30pm to move on to the next destination. Right around this time, as Heather recalls, Joel’s phone rang and in order to avoid the noise of the bar and hear the caller, he told her he was going to step outside. A few minutes later Joel returned and told Heather that he thought someone had missed the bus. According to Heather, Joel said “Hey somebody got left by the bus, I’m going to check on him.” At this point, Joel kissed her on the cheek and walked outside. Neither Heather nor anyone else present at the bar could have expected what would happen next, and that Joel would never walk back inside. Adding even more tragedy to this horrifying story is that Joel hadn’t planned on staying too late as he was attending his daughter’s confirmation just the next day.
Just moments after Joel exited the bar, a female patron came running inside screaming for someone to call 911. Heather wasn’t immediately concerned, but got up from her seat and went outside to see what was going on, and to ask Joel what had happened. To her shock and horror, she discovered it was Joel who needed medical assistance. According to a statement made later, Heather said “Joel was laying there with blood all over the cement near his head in the parking lot. We couldn’t get a response out of him.” The ambulance arrived and Joel was hurried away to the very hospital in which he worked as a systems analyst. Despite their best efforts, surgeons were unable to save Joel. According to the doctors, Joel had been severely beaten and multiple bones in his face were broken. It was determined that Joel has choked to death on his own blood.
Dr. Mary Ann Sens, a Grand Forks coroner, would perform an autopsy on Joel the following day. Ultimately she agreed with the doctors about his cause of death and said it was as a result of his sever facial injuries. She described Joel’s face as being flattered and later stated “When you actually touched his face, you could hear the bones crunching.” According to Dr. Sens, the injuries to Joel were focused primarily on his face, head and upper torso. No significant injuries were found on his extremities nor were there offensive injuries, such as a cuts on his hands, suggesting that whomever had attacked Joel had likely surprised him and left him no chance to fight back. Sens believed that fists could have caused the injuries, though there was the possibility of a foot or a fairly broad object without well defined edges. Sens also found blood pooled in Joel’s testicles, about which she would say it was very unusual and “I cannot prove or disprove any injury to that area.”
Sens would go on to say that Joel suffered blunt force trauma to the head and speculated that it was possible his head had been bashed against the ground. She found no trace of blood on his pants, which suggests that when Joel was bleeding, he wasn’t standing up and dripping it down. This would infer that someone had to have gotten Joel onto the ground quickly, which could be challenging considering that he was nearly 6’4” tall and weighed approximately 240 pounds. Suffice it to say, Joel cut an imposing figure and being that no offensive wounds were found on him, someone had to have blind sided him and taken advantage while he was grounded.
Police arrived on the scene and had a tremendously chaotic situation to deal with. The party bus had left, which escorted away forty to fifty possible witnesses to the attack. There were approximately eighty patrons left inside the bar, many of which were intoxicated and unable to provide much helpful information. In addition to this, many of those who may have seen something couldn’t identify anyone by name since most every person there that night was in costume. Police were given descriptions of individuals who had been near or interacting with Joel in the hours and moments leading up to the attack but it was essentially like a list of villains from an episode of Batman from the 1960’s, if it wasn’t so incredibly tragic and horrifying, it would have been funny. The descriptions included a clown, a cowboy, a gangster, a hunter, a lion and a construction worker. Grand Forks Police Chief John Packett later stated “If you’re going to find the Penguin and the Joker and the rest of them, you’ve got to find them pretty quickly.”
As a result of hearing about the party bus, the Grand Forks police sent units to nearby bars to try and track down members of that tour. Outside of statements from witnesses, who didn’t see the altercation but remembered Joel in his bright green hockey jersey, investigators were able to come upon some physical evidence. Not far from the spot where Joel had been found unconscious, they discovered a piece of yellow fabric. At first it appeared to just be a random swatch of cloth, but upon further inspection it was a homemade foot or paw from a Halloween costume. It was stained with blood. Forensic tests would later show that it was, in fact, Joel Lovelien’s blood.
At a nearby bar, authorities located the clown who turned out to be 22 year old Jon Deziel. When officers approached him, they found Deziel visibly shaken. He was crying and, according to authorities, his hands were shaking. One officer reported that Deziel stated “I guess things got out of hand tonight.” Officers were immediately suspicious of his behavior, though Deziel brushed it saying that he was upset because he had broken up with his girlfriend and that the attack on Lovelien reminded him of when he and his brother had been jumped a year earlier. Deziel stated that he had been knocked unconscious during the altercation the prior year and had awoken in a pool of blood. Deziel quickly stopped answering questions and requested a lawyer, at which point he was brought down to the station for further questioning.
The cowboy was located next and identified as 23 year old Bryce Larson. Larson was later described as the man who had organized the party bus. Strangely, when initially approached by police, Larson asked a question which immediately drew their suspicion. While asking if he knew anything about an assault which had taken place earlier in the night, Larson replied by asking “Had the guy that died been wearing a green shirt with the initials UND on it?” Of course, Joel had been wearing his green University of North Dakota hockey jersey. He is also reported to have seen blood on the man’s face, but claimed to witness no altercation. Another suspicious detail about Larson, when interviewed initially by police he is reported to have given them a false name, birthdate and to have been physically aggressive. He was cuffed until he calmed down, but was not arrested nor charged.
Due to intoxication and resistence, police requested to speak to both the Cowboy and the Clown again the next morning at the station. They found both Deziel and Larson more cooperative and less aggressive when they were sober. According to authorities, the men told a compelling story which they felt cleared them of possible involvement. Deziel and Larson explained that two of the passengers on the bus had gotten into a fight outside of the bar that night. They explained that a man dressed in a lion costume, which appeared to be made out of a customized yellow hoodie, had accosted a friend of theirs who was, ironically, dressed as a hunter. According to them, the man dressed as a lion had grabbed the hunter by the collar and violently pulled him to the ground. The hunter was identified as twenty-two year old James Wavra. According to Deziel and Larson, the lion swung a punch but missed and Wavra fought back and was allowed back on the bus but the lion was banned from riding further with them. Wavra when questioned about it stated that he “recalled hitting the man a total of one or two times and kicking him in the shoulder or the side of his face.”
According to Larson, following this incident, he and two of his friends were angry with the man dressed as the lion and decided that they wanted to confront him. The mixture of alcohol and the altercation had brought out some aggression in them. His two friends were the gangster, later clarified to actually be a “gangsta” rapper, a costume worn by twenty-three year old Mitchell Dahlen and twenty-three year old Josh Diezel, dressed as a construction worker, who also happened to be the older brother of John Diezel, the clown. Josh would later state that he wanted to confront the guy, and that he turned to Dahlen and said “Let’s go give this guy some grief.” It was at this point that they went to look for the Lion, but found him standing next to the imposing figure of Joel Lovelien, and there wasn’t enough alcohol in their systems for them to feel courageous enough to confront his towering figure. According to later testimony, there was a conversation between them and Joel but no violence took place and the talk was not heated.
They would also state that there was another man there, nearby, at the time. They were unable to give much information other than the fact that this unknown man was white and was wearing some sort of costume, which is a description which would match more than half of the attendees that night. Eventually, authorities managed to track down and interview almost all of the people who had been on the party bus that night. None of them recalled seeing any altercation involving Joel, though many of them remembered the fight between the Lion and hunter. In addition to this, none of them remembered anyone coming aboard the bus that night with blood or any outward sign that they had been in a fight. Of course, James Wavra, the hunter, had been in a fight that night. He just didn’t look like he had. So could someone have viciously assaulted Joel and then hopped on board without being noticed? All interviewed bus riders stated that they were not lying nor trying to cover up for anyone. At the time, the identity of the Lion remained unknown.
Authorities issued a statement requesting anyone who had been at the Broken Drum that night to come forward, even if they didn’t feel like they had seen anything helpful. You never know what details someone might dismiss that could be the key to finding the answers. They also mentioned that they were on the lookout for whoever had been dressed as the Lion that night, and much to their surprise, a twenty-three year old nursing student named Travis Stay walked into the police department two days later. He explained that he had been dressed in a yellow hoodie which he had fashioned into a lion costume and had heard that they might be looking for him and he wanted to cooperate in any way that he could. Officers quickly noticed that Stay had bruises on his face and cuts on his hands.
Initially, Police wanted to get their hands on the hoodie to make a comparison between that and the bloody yellow fabric found at the crime scene but, as Stay explained, he had thrown it away. Detective Duane Simon asked Stay why he threw it out and he responded “Because it was full of blood.” Stay explained that he had been assaulted by the hunter, James Wavra, but also that he couldn’t remember a great deal of the night. He had been extremely drunk and his memory was vague and foggy at best. Stay handed over his clothing and shoes without the need of warrant, nor the presence of a lawyer and was very cooperative. Further testing on his clothing would show that the yellow fabric matched the hoodie. It would also show that he had Joel Lovelien’s blood on his costume. Though Stay couldn’t remember the nights events he was adamant that he wouldn’t have hurt anyone. Of course, according to James Wavra, he had assaulted him for no reason.
Police attempted to put together a timeline of Stay’s travels that night, and during the course of the investigation they found yet another witness who claimed that Stay had attempted to assault him. Steve Raasakka, a forty nine year old man, explained that on the night of the murder he had been walking home from a friends house and was in the 2000 block of 10th Avenue North, about a half a mile from the broken drum, when he noticed a man in a yellow hoodie following him. Raasakka stated “I took that he was rather intoxicated because he couldn’t walk a straight line.” According to Raasakka, as he approached his home, the man in the hoodie came up behind him and took a swing at him, but missed, making this the second time this night that Stay had allegedly swung at someone and failed to connect. Raasakka said the man had blood on his forehead and a bandage on his hand. After the swing, Raasakka ran inside and grabbed a baseball bat but when he returned to the front of his home, the man in yellow had vanished.
Police also spoke to Paul Balstad, a taxi driver who had picked up Stay that night from near the cemetery at Columbia Road and Gateway Drive, nearly a mile from the Broken Drum sometime after 1am. According to Balstad “I looked up at his face and he was blood covered, hairline to the neck, and covering the whole front of his face, kind of like it was a mask.” According to Balstad, Stay was extremely distracted, obviously very drunk and seemed out of it. Balstad offered to take him somewhere to take care of his injuries, though Stay seemed disinterested. He had to ask multiple times for the destination as Stay was too drunk to focus for very long. Eventually he did drop Stay off at his apartment without incident.
With the combination of eyewitness testimony, enough evidence they felt to support that Stay had been violent and aggressive that night, as well as witnesses who placed him near Joel prior to the murder, and the bloody clothing, Police arrested Travis Stay and charged him with the murder of Joel Lovelien. The prosecution would go on to argue that Stay had been beaten up by James Wavra, and when Joel had attempted to help him and check on him, he had violently attacked the good Samaritan. It was an interesting theory, though there was one piece of it which the jury had a difficult time believing: Could the five foot nine, 160 pound Travis Stay have successfully attacked 6’4” 240 Joel without getting severely beaten? Add in the details about Stay attempted to punch two other men that night, and failing, and it became a difficult story to swallow.
Stay’s defense attorney had a lot to argue against, but managed to build a great possibility of reasonable doubt. To counter the blood evidence, he cross examined Dr. Sens, the coroner who had examined Joel, and she admitted that while the blood on Stay’s clothing was in fact Joel’s and was consistent with an attack, it was also possible, since Joel had died choking on his own blood, that he would have been coughing up blood and this could explain how it go onto Stay. On the other hand, she also said that when she examined Joel he had gum in his mouth which she wouldn’t expect to find if he had been coughing enough to put that much blood on Stay.
The defense also argued that Stay was much smaller than Joel and had failed in his attempts to assault others that night, making it highly unlikely that he could have been in any position to have caused the injuries which resulted in Joels death. It was also made clear that there were others on the bus who had acted aggressively that night, many people were intoxicated and that the testimony of other witnesses was flawed. A key piece of evidence provided by the defense had to do with Jon Diezel, the clown. In Diezel’s testimony, he stated that Joel was not outside when the bus left, but surveillance footage showed Joel exiting the bar for the final time and then, three and a half minutes later, Diezel exiting the bar and it had been confirmed that Diezel had left on the bus. This made it clear that Diezel had either lied, or made an error, and neither he nor anyone else on the bus had left yet at the time that Joel was murdered. A bouncer also claimed that the party bus was still there when he was helping Heather look for Joel. This was an important detail as a detective later testified that they had approached the case under the assumption that the bus had been gone when Joel had been attacked, which ultimately proved that there were other possible suspects who had not been properly questioned nor pursued.
It was a short trial, lasting only nine days. After the prosecution and defense had presented all of their evidence it took the jury only five hours to find Stay innocent. The jury felt the biggest issue with the prosecutions case was the timeline and the fact that, since the party bus had in fact not left prior to the murder, there were any number of other suspects who could have been responsible who had not been investigated. Stay’s attorney found the investigation flawed and said that it was the fault of “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 defense had argued that the hunter, clown and construction worker, Wavra, Larson and Josh Diezel, were the likely culprits and that they had attacked Joel when he’d attempted to defend Stay.
It also looked good for Stay that when he heard the police were looking for him, he came in willingly, cooperated, handed over potential evidence and did not request a lawyer until he was charged with murder. He had previously been working toward a career in nursing, but following the trial, switched to law and became a clerk for one of his defense attorneys. Stay’s friends and family were exuberant over the acquittal, though Joel’s loved ones felt they had been robbed of justice. They strongly believe that Stay was, at a minimum, involved in Joel’s murder. Lovelien’s ex-wife, Heidi, when asked about it afterward stated “I believe someday, it won’t be an early justice, but someday, God will take care of it. And that’s the only way I can go.” One juror stated “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 it someday. Joel is a man I wish I knew, and his family should know I considered 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.”
Joel’s fiancée, Heather Easterling, still has questions, asking “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 splattered?" Joel’s daughter, Alexa, sixteen at the time of the trial, wanted little involvement with the case. Though she had hoped for justice for her father, she knew nothing was going to bring him back and that is truly all she wanted: to see her father alive again. Sadly, Joel was viciously murdered and justice remains unserved. Stay himself was fairly quiet following the verdict, only reasserting his statement that he knew he would be exonerated because he wasn’t involved. Interestingly, even in the trial, Stay admitted that he couldn’t remember most of the night. Is it possible that Stay commited this crime and simply doesn’t remember it? Absolutely. Though the numbers vary from report to report, it is known that the party bus had trays and trays of jello shots, as well as the drinks which were gotten at various bars. Stay’s level of intoxication has never been debated.
After all of the evidence has been weighed, and the suspects put under the microscope of public and private scrutiny, there remains no answers as to who was responsible for Joel’s murder. In the absence of solid evidence and a provable possibility, several theories have risen to popularity. The first theory is that Joel was attacked by a yet unidentified suspect. Supporters of this theory point to the revelation that the party bus had not left the scene of the crime prior to the murder, and that at least one witness saw Joel standing with an unidentified white male. It is considered possible that Joel may have offered assistance to Stay, who drunkenly refused and stalked off, and in that moment he could have been viciously assaulted by someone else. It was a Halloween party and the alcohol was flowing, and the combination of alcohol and aggression typically doesn’t go well. This would also fall into the category of simply being a random act, and not premeditated.
The second theory is that which has been put forth by Travis Stay’s defensive team: that Bryce Larson, Josh Diezel, James Wavra, Jon Diezel and Mitchell Dahlen may have together, or in some combination, gone after Stay and ultimately ended up in an altercation with Joel that lead to his murder. Proponents of this theory point to Joel’s size and the likelihood that the extreme injuries to his face may have been the result of multiple attackers. In addition to this, being that Joel had no offensive wounds, many argue that he was likely rushed by more than one person and tackled to the ground while the others began hitting him, making it impossible for him to have defended himself in the first place.
The final theory is that which the prosecution argued, that Travis Stay, in a violent, drunken rage, blind sided Joel and savagely beat him to death. Despite the fact that he was acquitted by a jury, many feel that this acquittal came as a result of a failure of the police and prosecutor to tighten up their timeline and investigate all aspects of the case, but they do consider it possible that Stay committed the crime and got lucky in that there were errors in the investigation. Others believe Stay’s story, but feel that since he openly admits to blacking out, he may have committed the murder and not even remember it. This would hardly be the first time someone did something terrible while under the influence and failed to recall the details. Ultimately, for many, including the police, Travis Stay is still considered the prime suspect. Due to the double jeopardy rule, even if new evidence were to arise, Stay could not be tried for this murder again.
Ultimately, the murder of Joel Lovelien is a horrifying tale about a kind man who stepped outside to help someone out and paid the ultimate price for his desire to aid another person. His family has been left devastated, wondering why such a wonderful person was taken from them, apparently without reason. His daughter must now grow up without the care and love of a father who would have done anything for her, and enters into a world where she cannot believe in justice. Joel’s fiancée, Heather, lost the love of her life and had her world torn apart. She still thinks of Joel every day and hopes for answers and something to make sense of it all, though even a convinction someday will not make this crime any less senseless.
Over ten years have gone by since Joel was murdered, and all of the questions remain unanswered. How does a man step outside of a very busy bar, get viciously assaulted and murdered, but no one sees or hears anything? How does a man have Joel’s blood all over him, and yet supply no answers as to what happened to Joel? It’s an incredibly frustrating case with a bizarre cast of characters and no obvious answers. Hopefully, someday, the truth about what happened to Joel will come out, and someone will be held accountable for murdering a good man whose kindness was repaid with violence. Though no solution can ever bring him back, we can only hope that justice will be served and that those who loved him may find peace in the reveal of the truth.
[Thoughts & Theories]
The murder of Joel Lovelien is a case I have been studying for a while. It’s a highly complicated story involving a lot of different people, all with varying points of view, mixed with alcohol and costumes. There is a great deal of physical evidence available, a murder trial has taken place and yet we have no answers. It’s a real life who done it, with extreme consequences and at the core is the viciously violent murder of a man who, by all accounts, was a beautiful human being who deserved so much more. It’s a story that shouldn’t have to be told, and it’s a crime that shouldn’t have happened. A man takes his fiancée out for a fun night at a Halloween party, steps outside to check on a total stranger, and ends up being murdered. This case has gotten a decent amount of attention, including a Dateline special titled “Under a Halloween Moon.” Yet, despite the media coverage, including a very public trial, things have grown exceedingly quiet in the ten years since Joel was murdered.
Often times, in a case like this, where you have so much evidence and information, it can be almost as frustrating as the cases with no evidence. You would think it’s totally solvable, and yet it remains a terrible crime where no one has been held accountable. The argument has been made that there is a prime suspect, but when a jury of his peers finds him innocent, there isn’t much more that can be done. Simply because a jury found someone innocent, doesn’t necessarily mean that he is, but in the eyes of the law it does mean that their hands are now tied. For those of you who are unaware, the United States Constitution’s fifth amendment explains that no person shall be “subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb” which means that if you are tried for a murder, and found not guilty, you cannot be tried for that murder again. Even if you openly admit to the murder afterwards. It is simultaneously a good and a bad thing, but ultimately that is why in the American court system you are presumed innocent and must be proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the prosecution. The Lovelien family could bring a civil suit against Travis Stay, much like the Goldman and Brown families did with OJ Simpson, but it would result in monetary consequences rather than criminal prosecution.
This case is one of the more thoroughly debated ones that I have examined as people here tend to pick a side, and stick with it. The major split is whether or not someone believes that Travis Stay is responsible or not. Both sides of the argument are vehemently defensive of their position and aggressive against the other. Out of this battle we have several theories, all of which present possibilities as to what could have occurred, none of which can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. Despite a large quantity of evidence, there are contradictions involved and pieces of information which support each of these possibilities. The first theory is that Joel Lovelien was murdered by a yet unnamed suspect who hasn’t been on anyone’s radar and has managed to avoid detection for all of these years.
Joel was at the Broken Drum that night. There was a Halloween party, which was already drawing in a larger crowd than usual, and then we have the influx of people from the so-called party bus. A lot of strange faces, many of which were covered by makeup, masks or other costumes, the alcohol was flowing and the possibility that this attack could have been random, or committed by someone who hasn’t been looked at is huge, frankly. Joel was a large man, and you wouldn’t think that someone would want to start something with him, but alcohol gives people a lot more courage, and stupidity, than they might normally have if they were sober. Everything about this theory is speculative, but theres a myriad of possibilities here. Someone who knew Joel and has a dislike for him may have seen an opportunity and taken it. Someone who didn’t know him may have gotten angry about something, perhaps Joel bumped into someone, or someone’s girlfriend was looking at him a little too long. We do know that Bryce Larson, Josh Diezel and Mitchell Dahlen said that there was an unknown white male in the area near Joel, outside, shortly before the murder took place. Unfortunately, the only information they had was that he was white and was wearing a costume.
That essentially makes many of the patrons of the bar that night potential suspects, and if this person had murdered Joel, and then fled the scene, he could be difficult to track down. Again, it’s purely speculative, but this has to be considered possible. Normally, considering how violent the attack was, I’d want to say that it was personally motivated, but we are dealing with a lot of drunk people here and it isn’t uncommon for alcohol to bring out the beast in someone. In addition to that, drunken fights can often get out of hand and the brutality of the murder may be more associated with the level of the killers intoxication rather than a feeling of being motivated by something personal. We now know that the party bus had not left before Joel was murdered, which increases the possible suspect pool even higher.
It is entirely possible that Joel was murdered by someone who has never even been considered a suspect in this crime, and considering some people’s blackout nature when it comes to alcohol, there could be someone out there who murdered Joel and doesn’t even know that he did it, though I consider that a little unlikely. There would have been blood all over the killer’s clothing, and you’d think he’d put two and two together. That being said, this is a theory which cannot be ruled out and has to be considered a possibility. I don’t believe it is the most likely scenario, but it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.
Since we know that the party bus was still there, and did not leave prior to Joel stepping outside, that leads us to our second theory: that Joel was murdered by one, all or some combination of the men who had an issue with Travis Stay that night, namely Bryce Larson, Josh Diezel, James Wavra, Jon Diezel and Mitchell Dahlen. It has been established that there was an altercation between James Wavra and Travis Stay that night, though the details are disputed, with Wavra and the others alleging that Stay assaulted him and Wavra responded by knocking him down and kicking him. Stay argues that Wavra attacked him without provocation, though it’s hard to know for sure either way since, again, alcohol was involved. We do know, and it has been publicly stated, that at least Larson, Josh Diezel and Mitchell Dehlen considered going after Stay due to the incident.
According to them, when they went to confront him, they found Stay standing next to the imposing figure of Joel Lovelien and thought it might not be such a great idea. Their story alleges that they talked to Joel for a few minutes, with Josh Diezel saying he joked with Joel about a rivalry between Joel’s favorite University of North Dakota fighting Sioux and another team. Diezel went on to say that the conversation was friendly and the two men laughed saying that they would have to see what happened the next time the two teams played one another.
Stay’s defense attorney, in the trial, cross examined Bryce Larson and directly asked him “The truth is that it got out of hand and you three guys, with about 600 pounds between you kicked the hell out of those guys, didn’t you?” Larson vehemently denied these accusations and reiterated that they chose to do nothing when they saw Joel and were intimidated by his size. It’s hard to say for sure what occurred here. It’s certainly possible that some combination of the men went up to Stay to start an issue and Joel intervened which resulted in his murder, but I have one particular problem with this theory. Why would these men, who had a major issue with Stay, have so viciously beaten Joel and yet let Stay not only survive, but capable of walking away on his own? It’s certainly possible that Joel got involved and their rage turned to him, affording Stay the ability to escape. It’s also possible that the blood on Stay’s clothing could have been a result of him being nearby while the other men murdered Joel. The police, though, managed to track down these men that night and did not report blood being on them. Jon Diezel, Josh’s younger brother, was shaken and crying when they found him but he claimed it was due to a breakup. Larson lied about his name and address and was aggressive, but also drunk and perhaps he was worried about something else?
It’s all speculation, but this is a possibility which has to be considered. Joel was a big man, and it’s hard to imagine that the much smaller Stay was able to beat him so brutally without Joel getting in some shots to show offensive wounds on his hands or body. For two or more men to attack Joel, it would have been a lot easier. Another detail which makes me question this theory is that no one on the party bus had anything to say about any of these men doing anything to Joel, nor seeing anyone come onto the bus with any indication of a fight. Joel was very badly beaten and was bleeding profusely, the attacker or attackers would have had blood on them and that wouldn’t have been easy to conceal when all you’re wearing is a Halloween costume. I do believe there is the possibility that one or more of these men could have been involved, or know more than they are telling, but unfortunately, we just don’t have the evidence to lock that in. Police also may have been somewhat guilty of having tunnel vision during the investigation, and once they found out details about Stay, they essentially ruled out the others. This may have been a mistake which could have prevented justice, but it’s hard to argue against their theory. Which leads us to the final theory: That Travis Stay, despite an acquittal, was in fact the man who murdered Joel Lovelien.
Travis Stay has all of the details you’d expect to find in the man who murdered Joel Lovelien. He was present at the bar that night, was seen near Joel, was acting violently according to members of the party bus as well as a man he allegedly attempted to assault later. He was blackout drunk, had Joel’s blood on his clothing, to this day cannot remember most of the night and had wounds consistent with having been in a fight. So, with apparently a great deal of evidence to suggest that Stay committed the crime, how was he acquitted? Quite simply, because there were too many other options. From the other guys on the bus, to a total stranger, anyone could have been responsible for murdering Joel and though Stay seems like the perfect suspect, a jury disagreed that this was presented beyond a reasonable doubt.
There are some details about Stay which don’t fit. One that sticks out to me is that, if indeed Joel’s presence is what stopped Stay from being harassed by the other men, why would he then turn and lash out against him? It doesn’t make a great deal of sense that you’d attack a man who essentially protected you. Another is the tremendous size difference with Joel being at least six inches taller and having an approximate 55 pound advantage. Well, certain things have to be factored in. I’ve never seen details of the autopsy to discuss Joel’s blood alcohol level, and if he had been intoxicated himself, his reflexes would have been slower and he might not have seen it coming. Also, Joel was known as a kind hearted man who didn’t start trouble. He wasn’t likely to attack Stay and could have just tried to defend himself and fallen over or been tripped and, as a result, was viciously beaten without being able to protect himself.
Again, its all speculation. While the evidence seems to suggest Stay could have been involved, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is what happened. The thing that makes me the most curious is Joel’s blood being on Stay’s clothing. At a minimum this means Stay was nearby either when the attack happened or in the immediate aftermath. If he hadn’t been so drunk, he may have possessed details which could have led to the apprehension of the killer, or his entire story about not being able to remember could be a ruse which, when applied in court, worked. Short of Stay changing his story, or new information coming forward, we may never know what exactly his involvement was, if any at all. Even if we did find out, he couldn’t be brought to trial again.
Stay’s defense team alleged that Larson, Josh Deziel and Mitchell Dahlen had shouted at Joel and used obscenities, instigating a scene, but this was not something that could be said for sure since Stay himself couldn’t exactly remember. It’s a very confusing rabbit hole to go down, but there simply was not enough hard evidence to prove Stay committed the crime. There was only enough to say that he could have committed it, may have been present when it happened and had obviously been involved in some kind of altercation. But remember, Stay went to the police. He cooperated, handed over his clothes, submitted to questioning and never asked for a lawyer until he was charged. Those are not typically the actions of a man who knows he is guilty. So the question really becomes, did Travis Stay murder Joel Lovelien and lie about it, or did he simply not remember doing it which made him believe he is innocent? We may never have the answers to this question, and though in the eyes of the law Stay is innocent, he remains a possibility. I do believe that there is likely a fifty percent chance that Stay committed the crime, to me, it’s a complete coinflip between him and the other men on that party bus.
The murder of Joel Lovelien is a terribly sad story with a kind man being killed in an incredibly violent fashion. The list of possible suspects reads like a bad comic book and the one man who authorities believed was the man responsible was found not guilty. So where do we go from here? Unless further information is discovered, someone comes forward or there is some remarkable break in the case, this murder will sadly remain unsolved. For those who loved Joel, it is tragic and heartbreaking to have to live day after day knowing that someone stole away a father, a fiancée, a son and a brother and the culprit is still walking the streets. While they acknowledge the jury’s decision, it’s difficult for them to see passed Travis Stay. Whether or not Stay committed this crime is also something he will have to live with for the rest of his life, for while he was found not guilty, the court of public opinion is typically not ruling in his favor. Hopefully someday we find the answers, and Joel’s family can finally know the truth. Until then, this case remains open, cold and unsolved.