BALSAM LAKE, WIS. – Levi Acre-Kendall and his three friends grew up together, fished together and would not hesitate to throw their own bodies into a fight to protect one another.
But as Acre-Kendall's friends took the witness stand to recount the night he fatally stabbed a fellow fisherman along the St. Croix River, the prosecution seized on an opportunity to use them against him, contrasting their behavior that evening with his to bolter its case.
Acre-Kendall is on trial in Polk County Circuit Court in Balsam Lake, Wis., on one count each of first-degree reckless homicide and second-degree intentional homicide for the April 14 stabbing death of Peter S. Kelly.
Acre-Kendall's friends, Jacob Mossberg and Hank Michaels, testified that Acre-Kendall brandished a knife after he was pushed to the ground by a fisherman.
Polk County District Attorney Dan Steffen grilled Mossberg and Michaels Tuesday and Wednesday.
Steffen asked if Mossberg retrieved the shotgun, pellet gun or skinning knives from his truck as a verbal dispute between Kelly and Acre-Kendall escalated.
No, Mossberg said.
Steffen asked Michaels if he made a grab for his filet knife as he grew more concerned.
No, said Michaels, who also testified that he was prepared to fight to help Acre-Kendall.
After pressing Michaels for an hour and a half Wednesday, Steffen capped his questioning pointedly: Did pulling the knife escalate things?
"Yes," Michaels said quietly. "It escalated things."
Kelly was stabbed about 9:45 p.m. after he and his best friend, Ross Lechman, became engaged in a dispute with Acre-Kendall and his friends as the two groups fished about 600 feet apart on opposite shores of the St. Croix.
Kelly, a 34-year-old married father of five, and Lechman were fishing on the Minnesota side of Interstate State Park and grew upset with the swearing and marijuana use from Acre-Kendall's group on the Wisconsin side.
Kelly, whose blood alcohol content tested at .043, and Lechman drove over to confront Acre-Kendall, Mossberg, Michaels and another friend, Steven Phillips.
Lechman testified Monday that he shoved Acre-Kendall to the ground and that Kelly was later stabbed.
Mossberg testified that it was Kelly, not Lechman, who ran at a "full-on charge" and tackled Acre-Kendall. Acre-Kendall tumbled onto one knee, stood up, brandished a knife and retreated to Michaels' car as Kelly pursued him, Mossberg said.
Acre-Kendall was sitting in the front passenger seat with the door open when Kelly reached in, Mossberg testified. Acre-Kendall and Kelly came out of the vehicle in a shoulder lock, and then Kelly fled.
Forensic scientist Nick Stahlke with the Wisconsin State Crime Lab testified Wednesday that Kelly's blood was found across the roof, interior windshield, dashboard, and front passenger door and window of Michaels' car. No blood was found on Acre-Kendall's T-shirt or shorts, he said.
Several bloodstains inside the vehicle were "castoff" stains — that is, stains flung from a bloody object — and were deposited from inside the car while the front passenger door was closed, Stahlke testified. However, he said, a few bloodstains on the very edge of the front passenger door were deposited when the door was open.
Where Kelly's blood was found and how it came to rest there is important, because Acre-Kendall's attorneys, Eric Nelson and Doug Hazelton, have said that their client stabbed Kelly in self-defense, and that the blood in the car is proof Kelly was the aggressor.
Testimony resumes Thursday.