The story spread like wildfire among the country club set in Fargo: During the Battle at the Bow golf tournament, the year’s biggest event at tony Oxbow Country Club, local real estate broker Aaron Greterman was doing cocaine and handing out the drug to everyone in sight.

Within weeks, Greterman’s business began to dry up; his annual income dropped by more than two-thirds and the lifelong Fargo resident eventually moved to Tennessee to start over.

Only problem was, the cocaine story wasn’t true.

Now a North Dakota court has upheld a $2 million judgment for slander against the country club and several of its officers and prominent members who circulated the false tale. In a decision issued last month, District Judge Steven Marquart denied a request for a new trial, closing out a three-year fight by Greterman to clear his reputation.

“His name that had been built for decades in a place where everybody knew him was severely damaged,” said Minneapolis attorney Andrew Parker, who represented Greterman.

The false story of Greterman’s drug use “spread throughout the entire community,” Parker added. “It really is the classic case of the power group of the country club against this kind of all-American family, and they get decimated.”

Greterman called the experience “the hardest thing I’ve gone through in my life. I’m just now getting back to a place where I’m comfortable being in town and seeing people.

“Seeing people who treated me pretty raw and not having those emotions come up, that’s something I’ve got to work on.”

‘Like liquid cocaine’

The two-day tournament is the signature event on Oxbow’s calendar, Parker said. The business elite of Fargo — lawyers, bankers, insurance brokers — make the 15-mile trip south on Interstate 29 to the golf course along the Red River. For a real estate agent specializing in high-end residential properties, as Greterman does, it’s a prime networking opportunity.

Greterman wasn’t a member at Oxbow, so he was surprised to get an invitation to join the group of Dave Campbell, a former Oxbow president, for the event in June 2017. But he was happy to attend, anticipating a fun time and a chance to make business connections.

Campbell declined to comment on the case. Oxbow Country Club and its president, Scott Differding, did not return calls seeking comment.

One thing to understand about the tournament, Parker said: It’s a party.

“A number of [trial] witnesses played in that golf tournament,” Parker said, “and virtually every one of them talked about how much drinking goes on at that golf tournament, including themselves. It’s commonplace.”

Late in the first day, according to court documents and testimony, Greterman pulled out a small vial of doTERRA essential oil, which sells for about $20 at numerous retailers, including Walmart and Amazon. It’s a legal product containing essence of lime, which its maker touts for “its ability to uplift, balance, and energize.”

His playing partners saw Greterman put a drop in his drink and asked what it was. Greterman said he told them it was “the best energy shot you’ve ever had. It’s like liquid cocaine.” Late that night, Greterman got a text from Campbell, who said he was withdrawing from the tournament.

“Sorry, man. Got some family stuff,” Campbell texted, according to court documents. Greterman thought no more of it until a month later, when he found out from a friend that he’d been banned from Oxbow for “rampant use of cocaine,” according to court testimony.

The slander had started, and it already had serious legs.

Story spread quickly

Campbell had wasted no time spreading the tale of what he said was Greterman’s drug use. According to his court testimony, Campbell told at least 10 people that Greterman had been using cocaine at the tournament, including club executives and board members. Many of them told others.

Greterman realized that he was being singled out as a drug user by the Fargo business community that he depended on for referrals, banking and other services. He met with Oxbow board members to plead his case. He took two drug tests — urine and hair — which he passed, according to Parker. He offered affidavits and letters from friends. He asked the Oxbow board to help him clear his name.

Meanwhile, his business was dying. He lost clients; bankers and others in the real estate business viewed him as damaged goods, according to court testimony. His income dropped from about $220,000 a year to less than $70,000.

Finally, he felt he had no choice but to sue.

“We did everything we could to keep from going to court,” Greterman said. “We said, ‘If you retract this, we won’t go to court.’ And they just dug their heels in.”

In 2018, Greterman sued the country club and five members for slander. Meanwhile, Greterman left his wife and three children in Fargo and moved to Nashville, Tenn., to start a new real estate practice. He opened his office under the name Aaron Allan, he said, because if a person googled his real name, the first thing to come up were news stories about the case and his alleged drug use.

A unanimous victory

Slander is one of the oldest causes of action under English law, yet cases are difficult to win, said Paul Traynor, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law.

“Slander cases are hard to prove, and the hardest element to prove is that there is a connection between the allegedly slanderous statement and the economic loss,” he said. Under North Dakota law, a slander verdict must be unanimous, another hurdle to clear.

Greterman’s comment about the essential oil being like liquid cocaine was “an unfortunate choice of words, I think, on his part,” Traynor said. “But it doesn’t mean he deserved to have his business suffer.”

After a nine-day trial in July last year, a nine-person jury took less than three hours to vote unanimously in favor of Greterman, assessing $2 million in damages. Campbell was held liable for 35% of the damages. Differding, the club president, was liable for 25% and the club itself was held responsible for 20% of the damages. The jury assigned 7% of the blame to Greterman, with the remaining 13% divided among others.

After the verdict, Differding and Oxbow asked for a new trial, while the other defendants settled with Greterman for an undisclosed amount, Parker said. All the money to satisfy the judgment has now been paid, he added.

When the verdict came back, Greterman said, he was in shock. It didn’t hit him until two days later.

“I woke up and turned to my wife and said, ‘We kicked their ass,’ ” he recalled. Greterman has moved back to Fargo and is working to rebuild his business there.

“I just have to have faith that this is God’s plan for me and my family — that’s all I can do,” he said. “People thought I was guilty, and in this town, you don’t want to be associated with a guilty person. And that’s because the people I was up against would turn against you, as well.

“They thought they couldn’t be touched.”