BALSAM LAKE, WIS. — A Minnesota man charged with fatally stabbing a Wisconsin angler after a dispute between fishermen along the St. Croix River last week was pushed to the ground moments before the killing, a sheriff’s investigator testified Wednesday.

Details of the confrontation were disclosed at a preliminary hearing in Polk County Circuit Court for Levi C. Acre-Kendall, 19, who was charged last week with first-degree reckless homicide in the April 14 death of Peter S. Kelly.

The case has been cast as a dispute between a family man — Kelly, a father of five from St. Croix Falls — and a group of rowdy teenagers with no respect for Interstate Park’s family-friendly reputation.

But testimony from Polk County sheriff’s investigator Rick Gearhart complicated that narrative with information that Kelly and his friend, Ross Lechman, watched Acre-Kendall and his friends in the dark before confronting the younger men and that Lechman initiated physical contact.

However, Gearhart also testified, the younger men didn’t attempt to quell the escalating dispute, but instead swore and beckoned the older men to come across the river.

“The fact is that this whole thing … turned out tragically, and that’s the bottom line,” Polk County District Attorney Daniel Steffen said after the hearing.

Authorities allege that Acre-Kendall, of Cambridge, and two friends were fishing on the Wisconsin side of the river in Interstate Park while Kelly, 34, and Lechman fished on the Minnesota side. A dispute erupted between the groups, and the older men eventually drove across the river to confront the younger men.

Steffen said Acre-Kendall’s use of force was unwarranted. Acre-Kendall’s attorney, Eric Nelson, argued that Kelly and Lechman were the aggressors.

“It’s our position that Mr. Acre-Kendall acted in self-defense,” Nelson said after the hearing. “That he was accosted by these individuals and that the force that he used was reasonable given the circumstances.”

Gearhart’s testimony revealed information that raises questions about the reliability of eyewitness accounts: Lechman looked away and did not see the stabbing, which Acre-Kendall’s friends have said occurred when Kelly tried to pull Acre-Kendall out of a car. Gearhart also said that it was so dark that when Lechman ran to Kelly’s aid, he couldn’t see his friend lying on the ground and ran past him.

Kelly was stabbed in the chest about 9:45 p.m. and died about 10:35 p.m. after he was transported to a hospital.

‘Show more respect’

Gearhart recounted the events as they were relayed to authorities by Lechman:

Kelly and Lechman arrived at the river about 6:30 p.m. Lechman noticed Acre-Kendall and his friends.

“He heard them having fun, laughing,” Gearhart said.

The younger men got more “boisterous” as the evening progressed. They started swearing. Kelly and Lechman told them “to show more respect,” Gearhart said.

The night grew darker, and one of the young men told Kelly and Lechman to come over. Kelly said they would be over in 15 minutes.

“It’s kind of hard to say when the verbal altercation stopped,” Gearhart said.

Kelly and Lechman drove to the Wisconsin side. Gearhart testified that it was so dark that the younger men did not see Kelly and Lechman nearby. Talking to his friends, Acre-Kendall used profanity to describe Kelly and Lechman. That’s when Kelly announced their presence, Gearhart said.

Acre-Kendall walked up to Lechman and “comes within inches of his face,” Gearhart said. Lechman shoved Acre-Kendall, and the two fell to the ground. When they rose to their feet, Lechman said he saw Acre-Kendall pull out a knife.

“I have a knife,” Acre-Kendall said, according to Lechman’s account.

Lechman backed off. Kelly approached Acre-Kendall and another verbal altercation began. Kelly talked about showing respect, and told the younger men to leave, Gearhart testified. Acre-Kendall, standing next to an open car door, said they were leaving.

Lechman looked away for “three seconds,” Gearhart testified. The next thing Lechman recalled, Kelly was running toward him saying, “We got to go! We got to go!”

Kelly had been stabbed. The younger men fled in their cars.

Waited in the dark

Under cross-examination by Nelson, Gearhart testified that when Kelly and Lechman drove to confront the younger men, they parked about 100 yards away.

“They were there in the dark watching Mr. Acre-Kendall and his friends packing up their fishing gear?” Nelson asked.

“That’s a fair statement,” Gearhart said.

“The [expletives] didn’t come over,” Gearhart said Acre-Kendall told his friends. “It’s been an hour.”

“No, we’re over here,” Kelly answered, according to Gearhart’s testimony.

Acre-Kendall’s friends, ages 17 and 19, told authorities Kelly attempted to pull Acre-Kendall out of a car as he sat with his feet outside, and that Kelly was then stabbed, Gearhart said.

Acre-Kendall turned himself in on April 16. His friends are being treated as witnesses, not suspects.

Nelson argued Wednesday that there wasn’t enough probable cause to prosecute, and that the case should be dismissed. Judge Molly GaleWyrick ruled in favor of Steffen, who argued that the case should go to trial.

Acre-Kendall is scheduled to be arraigned on May 4. His father and several supporters declined to comment. Kelly’s family also declined to comment.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

Twitter: @ChaoStrib