As Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson gave his opening statements Thursday afternoon in Douglas County District Court, he paused for a moment. His pause lasted eight seconds.
He told the 14 jurors – eight women and six men – that those eight seconds was all it took for Steven “Beaver” Hlinsky to be beaten outside a bar. And it was in those eight seconds, he said, that Hlinsky was beaten so bad that he sustained massive head trauma, was choking on his own blood and the bartender thought he was dying.
In fact, Chad Larson said, Hlinsky did die – eight days later.
After nearly four days of jury selection, the trial for Jacob Larson, 34, of Kensington, one of the men accused and charged in the beating of Hlinsky outside the Muddy Boot bar in Forada in May 2018 began on Thursday, January 9.
Jacob Larson is charged with second-degree murder; aiding and abetting second-degree murder; first-degree manslaughter; and aiding and abetting first-degree manslaughter. All are felony-level charges. He is also charged with two misdemeanors, fifth-degree assault and aiding and abetting fifth-degree assault.
Before opening statements and before jury members were brought into the courtroom, pre-trial proceedings took place where Chad Larson asked Judge Timothy Churchwell to let him use a photo of Hlinsky and his family in what he called “Spark of Life” evidence. This evidence, he said, would include background information about Hlinsky that would help personalize him. It would include testimony from both of Hlinsky’s children, Dominic and Abby, about what their dad was like before assault and after the assault.
Todd Peterson, Jacob Larson’s attorney, objected to the Spark of Life evidence, stating that having Hlinsky’s children testify would duplicate what medical personnel and law enforcement would be testifying to. Peterson said they would talk about the same thing and that it was unnecessary.
Chad Larson said Abby Hlinsky was present when her father died and that she is an eyewitness to the account.
“That’s the stuff no medical staff could testify to,” Chad Larson said.
Churchwell said he would allow the photo as well as the testimony, stating he’s not intending to take the emotion out of this case. Churchwell told Peterson that if he had further objections, he would be free to make them during the trial.
Peterson then asked the judge for clear guidelines for when Dominic and Abby Hlinsky testify.
In addition to the Spark of Life testimonies, Churchwell is also allowing overhead photos of the Muddy Boot that show the layout of the bar from all directions, along with other photos from the scene, including tire pictures.
Judge Churchwell provided strict instructions to the jury about not talking to anyone about the trial during the trial, not doing their own research about the trial, not posting about the trial on any social media outlets, not talking to the attorneys or anyone involved in the trial.
“You cannot discuss this with anyone,” he told them. “Do not let outsiders influence your decision. You need to make a decision based on evidence.”
Churchwell also made it very clear to the jurors that they need to listen to all testimony before making any judgements about the case. He said it is very important for them to hear and see everything that is presented to them.
He told them it’s their duty to follow the law, consider the evidence and that Jacob Larson is presumed innocent until the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty.
He also thanked the jurors, telling them their time and service is appreciated and that they can expect the trial to take about six days.
“We appreciate your willingness to serve,” Churchwell said.
It was not premeditated
“What I believe is that the evidence will show Hlinsky is dead. There is no doubt about that,” Chad Larson said.
He gave a brief synopsis of the events. He said Hlinsky was sitting at the bar with Scott Roers and that there were four guys – Jacob Larson, Troy Traut, Frank Kalina and Jason Kraft – sitting at a table near them. At one point, Traut and Hlinsky exchanged words and Traut took a beer bottle, threw it at the wall, busting it and that when Hlinsky didn’t react, Traut stormed off outside the bar.
Chad Larson said Jacob Larson walked up behind Roers and Hlinsky, took out a marijuana pipe, lit it, took a hit off of it and blew the smoke between the two men. At that point Chad Larson said, Hlinsky told Jacob Larson he couldn’t be doing that and to get out of the bar. Hlinsky then got up and tried to escort Jacob Larson out of the bar, pointing toward the door for him to get out. The two apparently were pushing and shoving each other as they moved toward the door.
The attorney explained that Hlinsky stopped, but the door opened and Traut was believed to be outside the door and that he pulled Hlinsky out.
It is at this point that Chad Larson said the jury has to try and peer through a closed door because the door slammed shut and Hlinsky, Jacob Larson and Traut were all outside.
“How exactly do we look through the door?” Chad Larson asked. “What happened? We have common sense derived from your own experiences. We have technology that confirms. Hlinsky was assaulted, there’s no doubt about that. He was walking and talking and then he was unconscious and bleeding. We have common sense corroborated by photos.”
Chad Larson said there were interior cameras and outside surveillance cameras and the jury will see the events unfold. He said the jurors would hear from Kraft and Traut, who will testify that it was Jacob Larson who inflicted the wounds and after Hlinsky fell to the ground, it was Jacob Larson who repeatedly kicked Hlinsky in the head and face.
Chad Larson said the evidence will show that Hlinsky died from complications from the brutal attack. He added that it was not premeditated.
“This was an intentional assault that went too far,” said the attorney.
Put your passion aside
Jacob Larson’s attorney said in his opening statement that what happened is sad and that it is a tragedy that someone died, but he said it was critically important for jurors to put their passion aside.
He asked the jurors to hear all the evidence – evidence that comes from the witness stand – before they make any judgements. Peterson reiterated that the facts come from the witnesses, not himself or the state’s attorney.
An altercation/fight took place outside, but he asked jurors to consider two things:
Was Jacob Larson defending himself and did the injuries lead to death?
“Did the injuries actually cause the death?” he asked jurors. “The state has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that my client is guilty. It is not my client's job to prove his innocence.”
He asked jurors to look at the motives of those testifying as they are key. He asked them to watch the video and think about self defense. He asked them to listen to the testimony of law enforcement and other witnesses and think about self defense.
Peterson said there was a lingering conflict between Hlinsky and Traut that was personal. He said they had aggressive words with one another. He also stated that Hlinsky was intoxicated and that his blood alcohol level was 0.24.
“He (Hlinsky) pushed my client out of the bar. You will see it on the video. You will see who the aggressor is,” said Peterson. “Does Mr. Hlinsky want to start a fight? Can you start a fight when you are 0.24?”
Peterson compared the fight to a hockey brawl, which is a mutual fight and not exclusive. He said those kinds of fights happen quickly.
“Beaver was drunk and started a bar fight,” said Peterson. “And he lost the fight.”
Peterson said Hlinsky had an adrenal hemorrhage. He said if the adrenal glands don’t function right, a person will die and that that is what happened to Hlinksy. But he also said the fight happened on May 5, that Hlinsky was hospitalized until May 11 and that he was stable enough to go home. It was then two days later that he died. He questioned whether the injuries Hlinsky sustained are what caused his death.
Peterson told the jurors that they are now the judges and they get to decide.
“I ask that you find that Jacob is not guilty of these charges,” Peterson concluded.
The prosecution called three witnesses to testify Thursday, including Scott Roers, Travis Habiger and Jeremy Gordhamer. Roers was sitting next to Hlinsky at the bar the night of the incident. Habiger, who was with his girlfriend, was also at the bar that night. Gordhamer is a Forada firefighter and first responder who responded to the scene.
Roers, who has known Hlinsky since high school, said he arrived at the bar around 10:35 p.m. and that he sat down next to Hlinsky. He said there were words exchanged between Traut and Hlinksy. Roers said Traut was picking on Hlinsky, that he wanted to take it outside and that he threw a beer bottle against the wall.
Roers said Hlinsky didn’t do anything about it and that he just sat there.
He said after Traut went outside, Jacob Larson then came up to them.
“Beaver and I were just sitting there and he came up right behind us and blew smoke at us,” Roers said.
Hlinsky then told Jacob Larson that it was enough and tried to escort him outside, Roers said. He added they were pushing each other and that when they got to the door, he saw a bunch of hands flailing and then the door slammed.
Roers also said he didn’t do anything about it because he didn’t think Hlinsky needed help.
After a few seconds went by, Roers said he went outside and saw Hlinsky laying on the sidewalk.
“Blood was coming out of everywhere and he was not conscious,” said Roers, adding that he knelt by Hlinsky’s side.
Roers said he saw the defendant, Jacob Larson, whom he had previously pointed out, leave the scene and that he hadn’t seen him since.
He also stated that at the request of Hlinsky’s family, he didn’t go to the hospital to visit him but waited until Hlinsky returned home.
The first time he saw him after the incident was on May 13.
“He died right in front of me,” said Roers, choking up.
When cross-examined by Peterson, Roers said Hlinsky was drinking beer the night of the incident and that he didn’t think he was intoxicated. He didn’t think Hlinsky was being aggressive although he did say that the Hlinsky and Jacob Larson were pushing each other.
Roers also indicated that although Hlinsky didn’t work at the bar, he was the gambling manager and so he was at the bar every day. He said all Hlinsky was doing was trying to get the guys out of the bar because they were causing problems.
Habiger said he and his girlfriend got to the bar around 12:15 a.m. He knew Hlinsky but wasn’t close to him.
Habiger repeated much of what Roers said – that Hlinsky didn’t do anything when Traut threw the bottle but that when Jacob Larson blew marijuana smoke at him, he tried to usher him out of the bar.
He said that Hlinsky shoved Jacob Larson three times as he gradually moved him toward the door. And just like Roers, Habiger didn’t know what happened outside the bar.
Gordhamer, who has been a first responder and fire fighter for four years, said he was dispatched to the scene outside the bar for an unconscious man who was outside on the ground, bleeding from his ears and mouth.
When he arrived, he did not know it was Hlinsky because of his swollen and bloodied face.
“He didn’t have a pulse and was very swollen, cold, darkish, unconscious and had urinated himself,” said Gordhamer.
After doing a “sternum rub” on him, Gordhamer said he got a pulse. When the first responders tried to establish an airway to get him to breathe, Gordhamer said Hlinsky regained consciousness and started choking. It was at that point North Ambulance arrived, took over and loaded Hlinsky into the ambulance.
When cross-examined, Gordhamer said he saw boot prints on Hlinsky’s clothing but didn’t see any marks on his face.
When asked if he has seen intoxicated people urinate or defecate on themselves because of being drunk, Gordhamer said no, he hadn’t. But when asked by the state’s attorney if he had seen people lose bodily functions after being beaten, Gordhamer replied, “Yes.”
No more witnesses were called to the stand after Gordhamer and the jurors were escorted out of the courtroom.
The trial will resume Friday morning at 9 a.m.