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Taxi driver tells jurors of ride with Travis Stay

The taxi driver who picked up Travis Stay the night Joel Lovelien was killed told jurors Thursday that the defendant on trial for murder got into his cab with bloody, shaking hands.

"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," Paul Balstad testified.

Stay, 24, hailed the cab just after 1 a.m. Oct. 28, 2007, by the cemetery at Columbia Road and Gateway Drive, almost a mile from the Broken Drum bar where Lovelien was found lying unresponsive in the parking lot shortly before midnight on an evening of early Halloween partying.

A few times, the cabbie asked Stay where he wanted to go, and it wasn't until the third or fourth time that, Balstad said, he got a response.

"It was like he was focusing on something else. He had something on his mind," the driver said. "He was, like, staring out into space."

Balstad said Stay rode in the front seat and sat staring at the dash. The sight of Stay -- bloodied with a costume lion paw dangling and the other missing -- prompted him to ask: "Tough night, too?"

"And he didn't say a word," Balstad recalled.

Later, he tried again to engage Stay.

"I asked him if he wanted to get that cut taken care of," Balstad said, referring to a gash Stay had below his eye from an earlier fight. He said Stay looked at him as if to say, 'What cut?' "

Stay flipped down the mirror to look "and at that point, it seemed like he snapped back to reality," Balstad said.

He said he dropped Stay off at his house and drove away.

On cross-examination, Balstad stood his ground when pressed on his testimony that Stay smelled of alcohol but seemed sober. The defense has argued that the 5 foot-9 inch, 160 pound Stay was too intoxicated to harm anyone, let alone Lovelien, who stood at 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 240 pounds.

Balstad, the last witness called by prosecutors Thursday, was preceded on the stand by several people who rode the same party bus that brought Stay to the Broken Drum.

Throughout the day, the defense stuck to its argument that it wasn't Stay who killed Lovelien, but a group of men who left the Broken Drum on the party bus. (Stay was kicked off the bus at the bar after he was in a fight with James Wavra, another bus rider.) Four of the five men labeled as possible culprits have testified, all denying involvement in the beating death of the 38-year-old father.

Pointing the finger

Defense attorney Joel Friedberg continued Thursday his questioning of Bryce Larson, a man who wore a cowboy costume on the night in question. The defense has pegged him as the leader of a gang that killed Lovelien.

Referring to a transcript of a police interview, Friedberg suggested Larson and other guys were talking trash with Lovelien as he stood in the bar parking lot near Stay, who had just scuffled with Larson's friend Wavra, who was dressed as a hunter in blaze orange.

Larson said he wasn't razzing anyone, and that any trash-talking concerned the Wavra-Stay fight. It wasn't directed toward Lovelien who, Larson said, he thought was a bouncer.

Friedberg suggested Larson was in a "mad, mean, aggressive mood" that night, but the 24-year-old farmer said he didn't get upset until police came for him later in the night.

But Friedberg kept on: "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 denied it.

The other two guys Friedberg referred to were Mitchell Dahlen and Josh Deziel. Dahlen, who was dressed as a "gangsta" rapper, testified Wednesday that he wasn't involved. Deziel, who wore a construction worker costume, told jurors the same Thursday.

Josh Deziel, 24, East Grand Forks, said he, Dahlen and Larson approached the guy who had been in a fight with their friend Wavra.

"I said to Mitch, 'Let's go give this guy some grief,' " Deziel said, referring to Stay.

Deziel said they exchanged no words with the guy in the yellow and the discussion they had with the man in green was not heated. Stay was in a yellow hooded sweatshirt, and Lovelien was wearing a green UND jersey that night.

Deziel said he also recalled another man in the parking lot near Stay and Lovelien, but could only recall that it was a white man in some sort of costume.

Deziel, Dahlen and Larson testified that Stay was with Lovelien when they left to get on the bus.

'Things got out of hand'

Josh Deziel's brother, Jon, who wore a clown costume that night, also testified Thursday. According to police reports read in court, officers saw Jon Deziel crying on two occasions and once said, "I guess things got out of hand tonight."

Jon Deziel, 23, Oslo, Minn., said he was emotional because he'd been arguing with his girlfriend and also because the events of that night reminded him of when he and his brother had been jumped a year earlier in the parking lot of the Cuckoo's Nest. He said that during that incident, he was knocked unconscious and woke in a puddle of blood.

"You know how eerily familiar that is with something we're talking about in this very case, sir?" defense attorney Peter Wold asked.

Jon Deziel agreed.

"Are you sure you weren't so emotional because you just saw something exactly like that, sir?"

"I'm 100 percent positive."

Dean Dirk, Jon Deziel's godfather who was at the Broken Drum that night, later testified that Jon and his girlfriend, Heather Holter, went straight from the bar and to the bus. Holter and Jon Deziel told jurors the same.

None of the bus riders who have testified so far have said they saw an altercation aside from the Wavra-Stay fight. Nor has anyone told jurors they saw anyone with blood on them or anyone who looked like they had been in a fight leave the Broken Drum on the bus.

But as Wold pointed out to one bus rider, Wavra was on the bus and had been in a fight, but didn't look like he'd been in an altercation.

The bus riders and Dirk, who drove to the bar, have said they have not conspired to protect anyone who was involved in a fight with Lovelien.

Walking home

Steve Raasakka, 49, told jurors he was walking that night from a friend's home to his house on the 2000 block of 10th Avenue North, about a half-mile from the Broken Drum.

Raasakka, who hadn't been drinking, said that as he approached his house a man in a yellow sweatshirt was following him.

"I took that he was rather intoxicated because he couldn't walk a straight line," he said.

The man eventually came up behind him and took a swing at him. Raasakka got out of the way and looked at the man, noticing blood on his forehead and a bandage on his right hand.

He said he then went inside, got a baseball bat and came back out, but the man was gone.

Testimony is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m. today with one of the detectives who interviewed Stay in late October. The trial, which began Dec. 2, is scheduled to last until Dec. 19.

Ingersoll reports on crime and courts. Reach him at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to aingersoll@gfherald.com. ­­

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