Area News | Home | Marketplace | Community

Return to Archived Stories

Paynesville Press - September 7, 2005

St. Martin defendants cleared by civil jury in Northway death

By Michael Jacobson

Five years ago, a fishing/road trip from Richmond to Itasca State Park and back ended in tragedy in St. Martin in the early hours of Labor Day. Robert Northway of Richmond died after a barroom altercation, prompting a homicide investigation and manslaughter charges.

All the criminal cases involving this incident were settled within the next 18 months, with five men - Northway's brother and four St. Martin men - pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct that night.

Last December, after a week-long civil trial prompted by a lawsuit from Northway's widow, a civil jury gave clear exculpation of the bar owners and St. Martin residents involved in the incident.

The jury verdict, given on Friday, Dec. 3, 2004, after a five-day trial, stated that none of the defendants - Fred Doubek, Corey Lemke, Patricia Salzl, and Jesse Thelen - were negligent and that none of the four bars - including Doochie's Bad Company Bar in St. Martin, owned by Salzl - where Robert and Bryan Northway stopped on their way home had served them alcohol illegally.

(In June 2003, the four bars did settle for $60,000 in dram shop (liquor liability) claims, with equal thirds going to attorney's fees, to Robert Northway's widow, and in trust for their two children.)

At the end of the civil trial last December, the jury was asked - "Was Robert Northway negligent?" - and answered: "Yes." When asked "Was the negligence of Robert Northway a direct cause of his death?" the jury again answered "Yes" and denied any compensation to his family for his death.

The judge concluded that none of the defendents were negligent in the death of Robert Northway nor had any legal liability and were entitled to their costs from the plaintiffs.

The result is the reverse of the famous O.J. Simpson case, where O.J. was found liable in the civil suit, explained Paynesville attorney Robert Stoneburner, who represented Doubek. Simpson was acquitted in the criminal case but was found liable in civil court. This is because a lower standard of proof is used in civil cases - a preponderence of the evidence instead of beyond a reasonable doubt - said Stoneburner.

In this case, though, the defendants were cleared of responsibility for the death of Robert Northway both in the criminal cases (where they pled guilty for disorderly conduct for fighting earlier that night) and in the civil case, despite the lower standard of proof, Stoneburner said.

All the defendants were pleased with the civil verdict, he added.

On Sunday, Sept. 3, 2000, Robert and Bryan Northway got up at 3 a.m., according to Bryan Northway's depositions, and left for Itasca State Park. They fished from mid-morning to noon, drinking a case of beer between the two of them and a brother-in-law.

They drank another case of beer on the way back to Alexandria, where they dropped off the boat and their brother-in-law. They stopped to drink at a couple more establishments that afternoon and were refused service at one bar.

Driving back home to Richmond, the Northway brothers stopped in New Munich for a beer, leaving Spinners Bar about 9:30 p.m. Fatefully, they decided to make one last stop at Doochie's Bad Company Bar in St. Martin, arriving between 10:30 and 11 p.m.

One beer grew into many, Bryan Northway said in his depositions, and the brothers did not leave the bar until the early morning hours of Monday, Sept. 4, which was Labor Day that year.

Robert Northway died of asphyxia due to external thoracic compression, according to the official autopsy by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner. He was being held prone on the street by at least two men - Doubek and Lemke - when deputies of the Stearns County Sheriff's Department arrived.

Robert Northway was pronounced dead at the Albany Hospital at 2:19 a.m., according to his death certificate.

His blood alcohol level at the time of his death was .269, according to the medical examiner.

The two sides in the civil suit disputed what happened at closing time that night, around 1 a.m., when the Northways left the bar, first by trying to leave by a blocked back exit and then exiting through the front.

Defendants, bar employees, and patrons said the Northways resisted leaving the bar, which sparked a scuffle on the sidewalk. The Northways were tackled and then asked to leave, but the defendants charged that the brothers then returned to the bar with Bryan wielding a tire jack. (Bryan Northway was charged with assault in the second degree - which is assault with a dangerous weapon - but was not convicted of this, just disorderly conduct.)

The Northways' return sparked a second fight, according to this account, and the Northway brothers were tackled again and held until the arrival of law enforcement.

Law enforcement, while trying to handcuff Robert Northway, quickly realized that he was unresponsive.

Bryan Northway, in his court depositions and trial testimony, presented another version of events.

According to his depositions, Bryan Northway claimed that bar owners, employees, and patrons attacked him and his brother in the bar, dragged them outside, and did not allow them to leave.

The lawsuit - filed in August 2002 - sought at least $50,000 for Sandra Northway and at least $50,000 for her two children for the liquor liability; at least $50,000 for negligence by the bar for failing to protect Robert Northway from harm; at least $50,000 from Doubek, Lemke, and Thelen for negligence of unlawful restraint; at least $50,000 from Doubek, Lemke, and Thelen for assault and battery; at least $50,000 from Doubek, Lemke, and Thelen for false imprisonment; and at least $50,000 from Doubek, Lemke, and Thelen for vicarious liability.

Bryan Northway's account, as presented in depositions, contained inconsistencies. In a January 2004 deposition, he said that it was all one fight: that they were dragged outside and were "trying to get away," "trying to get to the truck," but were chased to their truck and tackled. But, in an August 2002 deposition, he said there was a period between the first and second fight and that he and his brother were walking to the truck when they were taunted by some people and then tackled.

Stoneburner - who defended Doubek against both the criminal charges and the civil suit, as well as defending Thelen in his criminal case - said he was pleased with his cross examination of Bryan Northway at the trial. Stoneburner felt he illuminated the discrepancies between Northway's grand jury testimony, his two depositions for the civil case, and his testimony at the civil trial.

Fourteen witnesses testified at the civil trial, including two police officers; the medical examiner; Bryan Northway; the three defendants; and Patti and Doug Salzl. Key for the defense, said Stoneburner, was the testimony of three bar patrons who were not involved in the civil suit or the criminal case.

The jury found the story of the defendants and other witnesses "more credible and believable" than Bryan Northway's account, said Stoneburner. Bryan Northway was the only witness offering an account that portrayed the defendants as the aggressors and the Northways as the victims. His credibility was damaged, said Stoneburner, by discrepancies in his testimony, by his own admission to have consumed at least three dozen beers on the day in question, and by a previous injury affecting his memory.

"The defendants were all uniform that the Northways were the aggressors," agreed attorney Dyan Ebert, who represented Thelen in the civil trial. Meanwhile, Bryan Northway's recollection and testimony "changed over time," Ebert said.

His client, said Stoneburner, definitely felt like he was acting in self-defense. Doubek was bitten by Bryan Northway while restraining him in the first altercation, said Stoneburner. After the second altercation, Doubek did not want to let Robert Northway go because there were threats or rumors that Robert had a gun.

Thelen checked the legs of both Northway brothers for weapons after the second altercation, but whether he helped to restrain Robert Northway or not is unclear, said Stoneburner.

The sheriff's deputy who first arrived at the scene also testified that he had not seen any "excessive" violence, which helped the defendants case of self-defense, said Stoneburner.

The five-day civil trial started on Monday, Nov. 29, 2004. The jury deliberated for four hours on Friday, Dec. 3, 2004, before finding the defendents not negligent in Robert Northway's death, said Stoneburner.

Contact the author at   •   Return to News Menu

Home | Marketplace | Community