Why would a woman with no criminal history stab a good friend in the middle of the night for no apparent reason?

Why would that friend agree to be a character witness for the woman in a trial expected to begin in Hennepin County Court on Tuesday?

Because the two say they were both victims of a stranger they met in a northeast Minneapolis bar that night. They think he put a drug in their beers.

It's a strange case, one that angers the woman's attorney.

"There is no way this case should be going to trial," said Brian Karalus. "I have never in my career seen a case where the victim agrees with the attacker that she wasn't at fault. There is no motivation. This kind of case is the reason I became a lawyer."

Nancy Fletcher, 43, got together with some friends who work at a prominent St. Paul restaurant on Jan. 1 to celebrate a birthday. At some point, some of them decided to go to the bar to sing karaoke.

They had been drinking moderately, according to one of them, Buffy Ess, but were not drunk.

Then a guy brought a beer to Fletcher and Andrea Wright but not the others. Fletcher drank her beer, but Wright instead gave hers to a friend who had joined them, Rich Barlow. Barlow and Fletcher dated 10 years ago, and have been friends since.

Within 30 minutes, Fletcher and Barlow were stumbling drunk.

Wright said she has known Fletcher since they were 19. They have worked together at restaurants and gone out for drinks many times. "I have never seen her anything close to this drunk," she said. "I said, 'What's going on here? How did this happen under our noses?'"

Wright believes the man who offered her a drink and was hitting on her slipped her friends Rohypnol, or "roofies," a sedative that causes amnesia.

"There is no doubt in my mind that I was the intended victim," said Wright, who said Fletcher's friends are speaking out to warn other women of what they think is a growing problem. "I'm a 40-year-old mom who teaches pre-kindergarten. We are not wild, crazy teenagers. I'm afraid this can happen to anyone."

At one point, they noticed the man who bought the beers had Fletcher in an entryway. Ess was so concerned she went to check on her. "Something weird was going on," Ess said.

Wright and Ess took Fletcher and Barlow to Fletcher's house and put them on a fold-out couch. By this time, Fletcher could barely walk and was passed out when they left. Thirteen minutes later, Fletcher called 911. She had stabbed Barlow repeatedly.

According to the police complaint, Barlow said he didn't know why she did it.

Fletcher said: "I'm sorry, but I don't know why I stabbed him. It was an accident."

Barlow could not remember anything either.

'My memory was wiped out'

"Bits and pieces of the night," said Barlow, who said he remembers wondering how he got so drunk so fast. "I have never drunk so much that my memory was wiped out like that."

"It's my conviction we were drugged," said Barlow, who said one of the first questions from the detective was whether anyone had bought them drinks. "I hate to think of Nancy losing everything when it was the actions of two other people that caused this."

Karalus says he had to fight to get a psychiatric evaluation approved. He said the court-appointed psychiatrist agrees "she was laboring under mental defect," and did not have a chemical dependency problem. Fletcher is charged with second-degree assault and faces a year in prison.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman acknowledged Friday that the case was very odd, but said that they frequently see women in relationships recant crimes.

"But violence like this is not just a crime against the victim, it's a crime against society. Involuntary intoxication as a defense doesn't often work. This case is what juries are for."

That said, Freeman wouldn't rule out a plea bargain that would keep Fletcher out of jail.

"There will be no plea bargain," said Karalus. "This is not a domestic abuse. No one recanted. This is ridiculous. It's a waste of taxpayer money."

Ess and Wright say Fletcher is introspective and kind. They use words like "delicate" to describe her. They say she is terrified to be facing a jail term.

Barlow says this of his attacker: "If anything, she is one of the sweetest and kindest people you'd want to know."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702