BALSAM LAKE, WIS. – Peter Kelly turned away from the stranger on the banks of the St. Croix River and yelled at his friend, Ross Lechman, to flee.
“He stabbed me,” Kelly, 34, called out as he charged into the darkness.
That April night was so dark that Lechman didn’t see Kelly collapse on the pavement ahead. A verbal dispute between the Wisconsin friends and a group of Minnesota fishermen had escalated into shoving and knife wielding, but Lechman assumed Kelly’s injury was minor. The sound of air gushing from Kelly’s chest was the first sign that things were worse than imagined.
Lechman stooped down, turned Kelly over and peeled back his shirt.
“I saw where the hole was, and I knew he was going to be dead,” Lechman said. “I put my hand over his heart and tried to hold the blood in.”
Lechman gave the dramatic account Monday on the first day of trial for the man charged in Kelly’s death, his face reddening as he broke down in tears.
Levi Acre-Kendall, 20, of Cambridge, Minn., 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.
Kelly tried to speak to Lechman, but couldn’t for all of the blood pooling in his mouth.
Lechman fought to save his friend, breaking a wooden post to smash a window in Kelly’s locked car to retrieve a cellphone and call 911. At a 911 operator’s instructions, he gave Kelly mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
“He had this scared look in his eyes, and toward the end, he just looked peaceful,” Lechman said.
Kelly, a married father of five from St. Croix Falls, Wis., was stabbed about 9:30 p.m. after he and Lechman became embroiled in a dispute with Acre-Kendall and his friends.
Kelly and Lechman, who each had had four alcoholic cider drinks that night, were on the Minnesota side of Interstate Park. They grew upset with the swearing and alleged marijuana use from Acre-Kendall’s group on the Wisconsin side.
Dramatically different versions of the night’s events surfaced just hours into the trial’s first day.
One of Acre-Kendall’s attorneys, Eric Nelson, told jurors in opening statements that Kelly shouted gay slurs and a threat at his client.
Acre-Kendall and one of his friends were watching and mimicking videos wherein a man repeatedly uses the punchline “deez nuts.” Kelly thought the comments were directed at him, Nelson said.
“Shut the [expletive] up, you [slur], you [slur],” Nelson said Kelly yelled. “We’re going to come across the river and we’re going to put you to sleep.”
“I’m not even tired yet,” Acre-Kendall quipped back.
Under direct questioning from Polk County District Attorney Dan Steffen, Lechman said Kelly never made such comments. It was Acre-Kendall who used gay slurs and escalated the verbal dispute, Lechman testified.
The evening began civilly when Kelly and Lechman arrived around 6:30 p.m. Lechman said that when he sneezed, someone on the Wisconsin side even said, “Bless you.”
Things turned tense around 8 p.m. when Acre-Kendall’s group began “hootin’ and hollerin’ ” and smoking marijuana, Lechman testified. Lechman said either he or Kelly told the group to quiet down and stop smoking because the park was a family place.
“Why don’t you [gay slur] just leave and shut up,” he said Acre-Kendall yelled back.
Later, Lechman said, Acre-Kendall beckoned the men to “come over and make us” quiet down.
Lechman testified that they drove over with their car headlights on, contrary to what has been previously stated. He admitted that he and Kelly parked 100 to 150 yards from Acre-Kendall’s group and approached them in the dark because they didn’t want to be detected.
Unaware of their presence, Acre-Kendall called the men a derogatory name, Lechman said, so they announced themselves. Acre-Kendall walked up to Lechman and started saying “the foulest things.”
Lechman said that he pushed Acre-Kendall to the ground and that Acre-Kendall then brandished a knife. Acre-Kendall and Kelly began arguing and swearing at each other. Lechman said he looked away briefly and then Kelly yelled for them to flee.
Nelson told jurors that Acre-Kendall was retreating into his friend’s car and was sitting in the front passenger seat when Kelly “lunged” at him, put him in a shoulder lock and pulled him out.
Acre-Kendall is claiming self-defense and plans to testify on his own behalf. Nelson also told jurors that it’s unclear whether it was Kelly or Lechman who shoved Acre-Kendall to the ground.
Trial resumes Tuesday.