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'It felt like death coming' when Fargo strip club bouncer put man in chokehold, made him go unconscious

Robert Stephens is considering civil legal action after incident at The Northern.

Robert Stephens
Robert Stephens was at The Northern Sept. 20, 2019, when his wife was ejected from the strip club. He too was asked to leave, and an argument broke out. Staff said Stephens became combative, which he denies. He claims he was pushed out of the bar, and a bouncer put him in a chokehold. Video shows Stephens struggling under the bouncer. Stephens passed out at least twice due to the chokehold. Chris Flynn / The Forum

FARGO — Robert Stephens said he didn’t deserve to be put into a chokehold by a Fargo strip club bouncer until he lost consciousness.

But that’s what happened Sept. 20, 2019, after the West Fargo man confronted staff at The Northern Gentlemen’s Club about his wife being kicked out of the bar. The verbal exchange in the bar’s entryway lasted seconds before becoming physical.

Moments later, Stephens was pulled out the bar by several bouncers and forced to the ground, where Todd Allen Kensinger held him there in a chokehold for roughly 8 ½ minutes.

“It felt like death coming, and there was nothing you could do about it because there were four or five people that were against you,” Stephens told The Forum.

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Kensinger was charged in December 2019 with aggravated assault, but a jury found him not guilty in February.

The defense argued Stephens posed a threat, claiming he tried to punch another bouncer in the entryway. Kensinger was doing his job and defending himself and protecting staff and other patrons, the defense said, adding he only applied the necessary restraint against Stephens.

Stephens, who denied taking a swing at another bouncer, said he is considering civil legal action. He had not filed a lawsuit as of Friday, Oct. 29.

Stephens said he wanted to tell his story because he didn’t want what he went through to happen to someone else. He said he doesn't want to ruin someone’s life, but he wanted to bring awareness to his situation.

“When you start choking a person to the point of unconsciousness, that’s very dangerous, extremely dangerous,” Stephens said. “If you don’t know what you are doing, you could kill somebody. Nobody wants that to happen.”

'Choked unconscious two or three times'

Stephens recalled going out with his wife and others on Sept. 20, 2019. They started out at Cowboy Jack’s in Fargo before heading to The Bomb Shelter, a bar in the basement of The Northern, around 10 p.m.

An hour later, the Stephens party went upstairs to the strip club, he said. They were there for about 40 minutes when bar staff told his wife not to sit on his lap.

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Eventually, she was kicked out.

Stephens, who said he was not asked to leave, followed his wife to the door and confronted a bouncer about why she was being kicked out. He said bouncers told him his wife had too much to drink.

Video obtained by The Forum shows the interaction between Stephens and the bouncer without sound. As they talk, the bouncer appears to touch Stephens' arm before Stephens pulls away. Bouncers told investigators he was being combative, according to police reports.

Stephens asserts he wasn’t being aggressive. He said he has trouble hearing sometimes and may speak louder than he realizes.

“I’ve been told a lot that my facial expressions don’t always match my demeanor,” Stephens said. “I was just asking a question.”

Kensinger’s defense team argued during his trial that Stephens swung at a bouncer. Stephens said he was grabbed from behind after a bouncer pushed him.

“In that process with somebody grabbing me from behind, obviously, I started to defend myself, you know, trying to get the person off of me,” he said.

That person was Kensinger.

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Surveillance footage from outside the bar captured bouncers forcing Stephens out the bar. One of the bouncers took Stephens to the ground before Kensinger got on top of him and put him in a chokehold.

“He just kept pressing his weight against my neck, and I passed out, choked unconscious two or three times,” Stephens said.

One of Stephens’ friends caught the incident on camera. Stephens shouted at Kensinger to get off his neck multiple times. Kensinger asked if Stephens would get up without restraining, to which Stephens said yes.

Kensinger didn't get up, so Stephens struggled underneath the bouncer, prompting the other bouncers to help hold him down.

“You’re not going to get up if you keep fighting like that,” one bouncer said in the video. “All you have to do is calm the [expletive] down.”

Other bouncers were seen pulling at Stephens’ legs and arms as he struggles and is restrained. A crowd gathered, with some telling Kensinger several times to get off Stephens.

“No,” Kensinger said in response. “If I had to fight with him to get him to the ground, I’m not going to let him up.”

At one point, Stephens' eyes closed and his tongue was hanging out. He also went incontinent. He gasped several times and tapped on Kensinger’s arm. Stephens is heard in the video saying several times he can’t breathe.

“You’re talking, you’re breathing,” Kensinger responds.

Kensinger said in the video he doesn’t have any pressure on him after a woman said Stephens’ hands aren’t moving.

“When the cops get here, I’ll get off of him,” Kensinger said.

Officers arrived at the scene after being called to The Northern for a report of a fight. One tapped on Kensinger’s shoulder and asked him to remove himself, which Kensinger did, according to a police report.

They then pulled Stephens to his feet and handcuffed him.

'I couldn't breathe'

Stephens did not face charges because of the incident, but he was left with red marks on his neck and a scrape on the back of his head. He also was spitting up blood and phlegm in the back of the squad car, according to one police report.

He declined medical attention before being released from custody, but he said he eventually saw a therapist because he had trouble sleeping and processing what happened. He said he struggles to watch the video, especially the parts in which he is gasping for air.

“That’s probably one of the most disturbing things is that even when I’m sitting there gagging for air, he’s still keeping pressure,” Stephens said.

Some witnesses said Kensinger used too much force, while others said he used only the necessary amount, according to police reports.

Stephens said he wasn’t trying to fight or hurt the bouncers while they had him on the ground. He said his instincts kicked in.

“My only thing was to get them off my neck,” he said.

The Forum reached out to the jurors who decided Kensinger’s trial. Most did not return messages, and those who spoke with The Forum declined to comment on their decision.

The Northern declined to comment as well, including when asked if Kensinger was still employed at the club. Multiple attempts to reach Kensinger were unsuccessful.

Stephens wants bouncers to be trained better to handle customers. He previously worked security in Sturgis, South Dakota, during the motorcycle rally, adding there are other ways to remove a person without grabbing them.

Grabbing a person who needs to be removed from a bar should always be a last resort, he said.

“The minute you put your hands on somebody, all bets are off because a person wants to defend themselves,” he said.

Stephens mentioned George Floyd, who was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police in May 2020. Former officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes as Floyd gasped and said he couldn’t breathe.

“That’s the way that I felt,” Stephens said. "I couldn't breathe."

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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