The fatal stabbing of Peter Kelly in April left his tightly knit hometown of St. Croix Falls, Wis., shocked that such a tragedy could befall the married father of five who dedicated countless hours to youth sports.
But as evidence about the attack on the St. Croix River trickled out in courtroom testimony and attorneys’ filings, public sentiment grew complicated and divided, reflecting the challenges jurors could face in deciding the fate of the Minnesota man charged in his death.
The trial for Levi Acre-Kendall, 20, of Cambridge, Minn., began Monday morning in Balsam Lake, Wis., on one count of first-degree reckless homicide in Kelly’s killing.
On a recent afternoon, some residents of St. Croix Falls and nearby communities said they could understand why Acre-Kendall, 19 at the time, reacted so forcefully to being confronted by Kelly, a 34-year-old with a background in wrestling and martial arts.
“They both should have walked away,” Ron Edlund said over a cup of coffee at Coffee Time in St. Croix Falls.
“The fellow that was killed shouldn’t have confronted [Acre-Kendall] to begin with,” said his friend, Jim Buelow.
“The trial could go either way,” Edlund said.
There’s no question that Kelly and his friend, Ross Lechman, initiated physical contact with Acre-Kendall. Sheriff’s investigator Rick Gearhart testified to that at a previous hearing.
What’s at stake is whether Acre-Kendall’s use of force was justified. He’s claiming self-defense, and plans to testify in a case that has drawn dozens of courtroom spectators at each turn.
The men’s paths crossed the night of April 14 when Kelly and Lechman fished on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix in Interstate Park and Acre-Kendall and his teenage friends fished on the Wisconsin side.
Gearhart previously testified that the younger men grew boisterous, and the older men told them to “show more respect.” The younger men were allegedly swearing and smoking marijuana.
At one point, one of the younger men challenged the older men to drive across the river. Kelly and Lechman obliged, Gearhart testified, by driving over in the dark with their car’s headlights turned off. Acre-Kendall walked up to Lechman, who pushed Acre-Kendall to the ground before the second, fatal, confrontation occurred.
One of Acre-Kendall’s attorneys, Eric Nelson, argued in court filings that his client was sitting in the front passenger seat of a friend’s car — trying to retreat — when Kelly reached inside and put him in a “shoulder lock,” prompting Acre-Kendall to stab Kelly once in the chest with a knife.
“Mr. Acre-Kendall reasonably believed that the force was necessary to prevent the imminent death or great bodily harm to himself,” Nelson wrote.
Polk County District Attorney Dan Steffen has said that Kelly had been drinking alcohol that night, but that his blood alcohol content was below the legal limit to drive. That information, and Kelly’s size and his wrestling and martial arts background, are not expected to come up at trial.
Nelson believes Acre-Kendall should be shielded by Wisconsin’s “castle doctrine,” which protects self-defense in homes, businesses and cars.
Many people think there’s an element of truth in Nelson’s argument.
“I believe it was self-defense,” said Tom Larson, of Taylors Falls, where the entrance to the Minnesota side of Interstate Park is situated. “At Kelly’s age — who was a mentor to young wrestlers — why would you go confront a [19-year-old]?
“It’s just sad all around.”
Larson said both men are to blame for escalating the encounter, and that Acre-Kendall’s actions merit punishment, but not prison time.
“We’ve heard a lot over here, ‘They’ve got to hang that kid,’ ” Larson said on a recent trip to St. Croix Falls.
Kelly was a well-known resident of the 2,100-person town, and was respected for the dedication he showed as a volunteer coach for high school wrestling, football and baseball.
“It’s kind of a touchy subject because it’s such a small town,” said lifelong St. Croix Falls resident Adam Miller. “Do I think [Acre-Kendall] originally intended to harm [Kelly] like that? I don’t think so.
“I’m just hopefully going to have faith in the system that [jurors are] going to make the right call.”
Jurors have been selected from another county due to the case’s publicity, and will be sequestered in Polk County.