Joel Lovelien's first wife and fiancee say they're fighting the temptation to be bitter in light of a jury finding Travis Stay, the man accused of killing the man they loved, not guilty.

"I believe that someday -- it won't be an earthly justice -- but someday, God will take care of it," said Heidi Marto, Lovelien's ex-wife. "And that's the only way I can go on."

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"And that's the way Joel would want it too," said Heather Eastling, Lovelien's fiancee.

Both women said there's no doubt in their minds that Stay, 24, killed Lovelien, a 38-year-old father.

"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?" Eastling wondered, referring to Lovelien's blood found on Stay's clothing.

"To me, there's no logical explanation for that," Marto said.

Marto, 37, Grand Forks, sat through much of the trial, at times having to avert her eyes when gruesome photos of a beaten Lovelien were shown to jurors.

"I don't want to remember him that way," she said. "I want to remember him whole."

The prosecution called 32-year-old Eastling, who was with Lovelien at the Broken Drum bar the night he was assaulted, to the witness stand -- an experience she described as nerve-racking.

"I knew I had to get through it for Joel," she said. "It's hard to go back and think of that night again and tell exactly what happened."

Eastling, who was to have married Lovelien in August, said she wished she'd been more cognizant that night and remembered more specifics. "You're not thinking that when you're looking at your fiance lying on the ground bleeding," she said.

Neither woman found fault with how the police or prosecution handled the case.

"The state's attorney's office has put their heart and soul into this for the last 14 months," Marto said.

After the verdict was read, Marto said Detective Duane Simon, who led the murder investigation, apologized to her: "He kept telling me, 'I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.' I said, 'Duane, there's nothing you could do. You did your job.' "

Now that the criminal proceedings have dead-ended, Marto, the mother of Lovelien's 16-year-old daughter Alexa, said she doesn't know how likely a wrongful-death suit is. Marto said it would be up to Lovelien's parents because Alexa wouldn't want to be involved because of the publicity such a suit might bring.

Eastling and Marto said the experience of losing Joel has brought them closer together.

"We have a man we loved in common. We have my daughter who she also loves," Marto said.

Lovelien and Marto shared custody of Alexa. After his death, Alexa continued to visit Eastling. And now that Eastling lives in Houston, she and Alexa still keep in touch.

Marto, who met Lovelien in 1990 and is now remarried, said Alexa has handled the loss, and now, the verdict, better than she has.

"Her attitude since Joel's death has been no matter what happens ... it's not going to bring her dad back," she said.

Marto described Lovelien as a loving dad -- a simple, sentimental guy who liked to play golf: "He was the kind of guy who has always sent my mother flowers on Mother's Day."

Marto said she hopes Stay knows how lucky he is.

"Travis has been given a second chance that Joel will never have," she said.

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.