BALSAM LAKE, WIS. – Closing arguments began Saturday morning before a packed courtroom in the trial of Levi Acre-Kendall over the stabbing death of Peter S. Kelly, a 34-year-old married father of five from St. Croix Falls, Wis.
For several hours Friday, Levi Acre-Kendall carefully recounted the night he fatally stabbed the fellow fisherman — bolstering the key narrative his friends have already shared — tearing up and apologizing for his actions.
“I wish I could take it all back,” the Cambridge, Minn., man said as he broke down in tears. “I’m so sorry.”
Acre-Kendall’s attorneys have argued that he acted in self-defense when he stabbed Kelly once in the chest. The prosecution has portrayed Acre-Kendall as a smart-aleck who overreacted and conspired with his three friends to evade detection.
Acre-Kendall, 20, has been on trial in Polk County Circuit Court in Balsam Lake on one count each of first-degree reckless homicide and second-degree intentional homicide in the April 14 stabbing death of Kelly.
On Saturday morning, a third charge was added, second-degree reckless homicide.
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 along the St. Croix River in Interstate Park. Kelly and Lechman, who were fishing on the Minnesota side, grew upset with profanity and marijuana use from Acre-Kendall’s fishing group on the Wisconsin side and later drove over to confront them.
Acre-Kendall testified that relations between the groups began civilly. He said he was the one who said, “Bless you,” when Lechman sneezed from across the river. Lechman waved back in appreciation.
Things soured, Acre-Kendall said, when he and his friend, Steven Phillips, watched videos in which a man uses the punchline “deez nutz.” Acre-Kendall was eating peanuts, and seized on the coincidence.
“ ‘Yo, Steve, you want some of deez nutz?’ ” Acre-Kendall said he joked.
Then, he said, someone from the Minnesota side yelled, “You think that’s funny, [gay slur]?”
“I was just confused,” Acre-Kendall testified.
He said the man about 600 feet away on the Minnesota shore kept using gay slurs, and then said they were coming over to put him to “sleep.”
Acre-Kendall retorted: “Why? I’m not even tired yet.”
Acre-Kendall and his friends — Phillips, Jacob Mossberg and Hank Michaels — fished for another 45 minutes to an hour. He testified that as they started leaving, Phillips yelled a derogatory term across the river. Acre-Kendall repeated it.
That’s when Kelly and Lechman announced their presence in the dark. “So you’re the one who’s talking [expletive]?” one man said.
Acre-Kendall said one of the men grabbed his shoulders, and he was “thrown” onto his hands and knees, scraping them. He could not identify who threw him.
Lechman and Phillips testified that Lechman pushed Acre-Kendall. Mossberg said Kelly did the shoving.
Acre-Kendall testified that he got back on his feet, pulled a knife out of his pocket, and held it out at stomach-level.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to fight,’ ” Acre-Kendall recalled in court.
Acre-Kendall said he walked backward around the trunk of Michaels’ car to the front so he could get inside.
Kelly followed him.
“He was face-to-face with me and he started faking me out — lunging at me, you know?” Acre-Kendall testified.
Acre-Kendall said he kept the knife in his right hand and used his left hand to open the front passenger door. He sat down in the seat, one foot on the car frame and one foot on the asphalt outside.
Kelly leaned over and flexed his arm, Acre-Kendall said.
“ ‘You want to feel a real man’s muscles?’ ” he said Kelly remarked.
Acre-Kendall said Kelly told the younger men they should leave, but that, “Never once did he let us go.” Acre-Kendall said Kelly grabbed him by the back of the neck and one shoulder and dragged him out. He said his head was pushed against Kelly’s abdomen. He stared down at his flip-flops and Kelly’s shoes.
“I just, I stabbed him,” Acre-Kendall said, biting his lip. He said he didn’t know where he had stabbed Kelly.
District Attorney Dan Steffen aggressively cross-examined Acre-Kendall, asking why he didn’t contact police.
“We were just kind of lying low and waiting to see what happened,” said Acre-Kendall, who remained calm in the face of an increasingly tense Steffen.
Acre-Kendall and his friends fled in two cars. They passed two police squads and didn’t flag down either.
They turned themselves in to authorities in the following days.
Steffen ended his cross-examination by asking Acre-Kendall if he stabbed Kelly because, “You were afraid you were going to scrape a couple of knees and elbows this time?”
“No, that was not what I was afraid of,” Acre-Kendall said.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Saturday morning, followed by jury deliberations.