Inside the murder trial of Travis Stay, the case that 'consumed' a city

Charged with murder in Joel Lovelien's death, Travis Stay went on trial in Grand Forks in December 2008. 'Everyone had an opinion,' recalled a reporter who covered the trial. The verdict: not guilty.

Travis Stay in court
Travis Stay (right) and his attorney Peter Wold listen as the verdict in his murder trial was read at the Grand Forks County Courthouse in December 2008. (Grand Forks Herald photo by John Stennes)

GRAND FORKS — The mood was electric. More than a year after 38-year-old Joel Lovelien was beaten to death outside a bar in Grand Forks in October 2007 with no witnesses, someone was on trial for his murder.

Travis Stay.

Stay had also been at the Broken Drum bar that fateful night, dressed in Halloween costume as a lion. He later made his way home, with a black eye and covered in blood. He voluntarily went to police and spoke to them without a lawyer, volunteering up answers. He remembered little from the alcohol-saturated night, he said. And he certainly didn't remember Lovelien, much less killing him, he said.

But police collected evidence, including clothes Stay wore that night that had Lovelien's blood soaked and splattered on them. They collected statements, about how Stay got a taxi ride covered in blood, how he got in another fight, how he attempted to attack a man in an alley on the way home.

Prosecutors thought they had a strong case. They charged Stay with Lovelien's murder.


Listen to Episode No. 6 — Travis on Trial

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In this episode of Dakota Spotlight, the podcast will trace the days of the trial, including with the help of Archie Ingersoll, the reporter who covered the trial from inside the courtroom day in and day out.

"The Travis Stay trial was one that consumed the city of Grand Forks. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone was talking about it," Ingersoll said. "There was an energy around it unlike any case I had ever covered, unlike any case I've covered since."

Nancy Yon, the lead prosecutor in the case, will describe why she felt confident in her evidence, why she was convinced Stay was guilty. And the podcast will explore what it was that lead to a jury finding Stay not guilty in the crime after six hours of deliberation.

About Dakota Spotlight, Season 8 — Unresolved: The Murder of Joel Lovelien

Joel Lovelien was beaten to death outside the Broken Drum bar in Grand Forks in the early morning hours of Oct. 28, 2007, amid a night of Halloween revelry. Nobody has ever been found guilty for his murder.

Suspicion immediately fell on a variety of costumed partiers that night, including some dressed as a lion, the joker and a hunter. Local police and prosecutors thought they had their man, the one dressed as a lion that night: Travis Stay. But Stay was found not guilty in December 2008 in a high-profile trial -- a sensational result that has made the case a staple of true crime shows, including the Dateline TV program.


Welcome to Dakota Spotlight's eighth season: "Unresolved: The Murder of Joel Lovelien." With unprecedented access to case files and evidence, prosecutors, police, witnesses and family members, Dakota Spotlight creator and host James Wolner will use his unique investigation and reporting style to pursue the case's central questions: Who killed Joel Lovelien? Why was Travis Stay found not guilty? And why does so much suspicion linger around others in this case?

More from this season of Dakota Spotlight
In 'Unresolved: the Murder of Joel Lovelien,' Dakota Spotlight investigates the beating death of a man outside a bar amid Halloween festivities. Nobody has ever been found guilty of killing him.
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15 years after Joel Lovelien was found slain, his death, and the murder trial and verdict that followed, continues to reverberate in many people's lives.
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The Dakota Spotlight podcast reviews what evidence Grand Forks County submitted against Travis Stay when he was arrested for the murder of Joel Lovelien in 2007.
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Joel Lovelien was a big man with a big personality. Not aggressive, but smart, with a dry, raunchy sense of humor. And don't forget his fondness for belting out the "SpongeBob Squarepants" theme song.
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In this Dakota Spotlight episode, the podcast tracks the movements and actions of Travis Stay and others. What was going on with him and his friends that weekend night just before Halloween?
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As police responded to the scene of the beating death of Lovelien in Grand Forks on Oct. 28, 2007, they quickly zeroed in on three costumed partiers that night: a clown, a cowboy and a hunter.
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In its eighth season, the Dakota Spotlight podcast is re-examining the killing of Joel Lovelien, which took place outside the Broken Drum bar in Grand Forks on Oct. 28, 2007.

People in this episode

  • Paul Balstad: A taxi driver in Grand Forks the night Lovelien was killed, he drove Travis Stay home and noticed he was dazed, had blood on him and looked like he had been in a fight.
  • Anna Barrett: Dressed as Paris Hilton and left the Broken Drum arm in arm with James Wavra. Witnessed altercation with Travis Stay.
  • Jon Deziel: Dressed as a clown. Interviewed by Grand Forks investigators the night Joel died.
  • Heather Holter: Party bus passenger and Jon Deziel's girlfriend.
  • Archie Ingersoll: Former reporter at the Grand Forks Herald and current news editor for The Forum of Fargo Moorhead. Reported on the trial in 2008.
  • Bryce Larson: Dressed as a cowboy. Interviewed by Grand Forks investigators the night Joel died.
  • Joel Lovelien: 38 years old, a technical systems analyst for Altru Hospital. Joel went to the Broken Drum bar with his fiancée
  • Travis Stay: A reveler at the Broken Drum bar that night who was driven home with blood on his lion costume. He was later charged with Lovelien's murder and found not guilty in December 2008.
  • Steven Raasakka: Was walking home in the alley between 10th Avenue North and 11th Avenue North at approximately 12:20 a.m., Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007 when he encountered a seemingly intoxicated Travis Stay. Stay took a swing at Raasakka but missed and then fell to the ground. 
  • James Wavra: Dressed as a hunter. Involved in a short fight with Travis Stay. Interviewed by Grand Forks investigators the night Joel died.
  • Nancy Yon: Former Grand Forks County state's attorney. Prosecutor in the 2008 trial of Travis Stay.

People in previous episodes

  • Heather Eastling: Joel Lovelien's fiancée in 2007.
  • Mike Ferguson: Grand Forks Police sergeant.
  • Mike Flannery: Former Grand Forks police detective, processed the "party bus" in search of blood. No blood was found.
  • Jennifer Holter: Party bus passenger and sister to Heather Holter.
  • Heidi Hosley: Joel Lovelien's ex-wife and mother to Joel's daughter Alexa.
  • Leslie Hovda: Joel Lovelien's niece.
  • Dana Kelly: Friend and colleague of Joel Lovelien.
  • Jennifer Kohl-Fichtner: Friend and colleague of Joel Lovelien.
  • Erika Lovelien: Joel Lovelien's older sister.
  • William Macki: Grand Forks Police sergeant.
  • Eli McVey: Travis Stay's childhood friend. Accompanied Travis on the party bus. Has no recollection of being at the Broken Drum Bar but paid for a drink there with a debit card. Was awake when Travis arrived at home covered in blood.
  • Duane Simon: Former Grand Forks police detective, chief investigator into the murder of Joel Lovelien in 2007.
  • Cora Lee Taylor: Travis Stay's roommate. Partied with Travis and others on the party bus. Spoke with Travis the next morning about his injuries and condition. 
  • Keith Swartz: Discovered Lovelien in the parking lot of the Broken Drum bar.

Jeremy Fugleberg is editor of The Vault, Forum Communications Co.'s home for Midwest history, mysteries, crime and culture. He is also a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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