One-punch homicide

When a night at the bar goes horribly wrong

One-punch homicide

Alexander Tuomisto stepped up to the bar and sat down on a worn stool at the end. Men sang karaoke as girls danced in the cramped aisle behind him. This was how he spent his Saturday nights in St. Michael: at Corner Bar, off Main Street, among friends.

Everyone knew Alex and his crew, who started drinking at the tavern and then walked outside to the short steps leading from the bar to his porch upstairs for the after-party.

The small-town dive was packed with regulars and a group of older men from out of town no one had seen before. They were drunk.

Corner Bar, where Alexander Tuomisto (right) killed Adam Baker (left)
Adam Baker courtesy of his family. Corner Bar by Michael Herpy. Alexander Tuomisto courtesy of Peter Tuomisto & Wright County Sheriff's Office.
Corner Bar, where Alexander Tuomisto (right) killed Adam Baker (left)
Martin Walker (top) and Dustin Goy
Walker courtesy Kenosha Police Department. Goy courtesy of Crystal Lake Police Department.
Martin Walker (top) and Dustin Goy

A man Alex knew was howling at the strangers from across the bar, daring them to fight. "Come on. Come on. Let's go!" he shouted.

Tempers rose. A mob of people got involved in the pushing and shoving.

But then, as quickly as the dispute began, everyone calmed down. The strangers decided to leave. A bouncer kicked the howler out. Tuomisto followed out the back door with friends, and the rest of the bar began emptying out after him.

Behind the bar, Tuomisto heard a scuffle. He rounded the side of the building and saw one of his friends pinned to the wall, being punched and kicked by a bunch of guys.

Tuomisto ran over to break it up. He cocked his arm and took a swing at the nearest man, screaming "Take that!"

Tuomisto's fist connected with the man's jaw, whose body stiffened. Knocked out on his feet, the man fell backward and crashed onto the back of his head.

Someone in the growing crowd saw that the man was not getting up and called police. The man's head looked like a burst melon, blood seeping onto the asphalt.

Tuomisto looked around and saw all the witnesses, then took off. He didn't go home that night.

Wright County sheriff's deputies searched for Tuomisto but couldn't find him at his apartment over the bar. Tuomisto stayed out all night at another home across town.

At 9 a.m. the next day, Tuomisto called police and turned himself in.

"When will I get to tell my story?" he asked from the back of the squad car.

"Fucking one punch," he said. "I don't know how this happened."

   

IT MAY SOUND LIKE a fluke, but one-punch homicides happen more often than you might suspect.

Several local cases have hit the front page. A Brainerd brawl in August 2008 left a man dead from one punch. Wisconsin has practically seen an epidemic, with two cases happening within weeks of each other.

Over in the Windy City, Chicago police are under investigation for their handling of a one-punch homicide involving the nephew of former mayor Richard M. Daley.

Last fall, a California district attorney lost his campaign for re-election over his decision not to press charges in a one-punch kill by a jealous boyfriend at a dance club.

The problem got so bad in England that the British government kicked off a public awareness campaign. The "One Punch Can Kill" commercials are an effort to discourage fighting in bars.

Kenosha Detective Matt Hagen, who spent seven years in the gang unit, has investigated one local homicide caused by a punch, and three more cases where the victim didn't die but suffered severe brain injuries.

"If you're looking for one common thing: alcohol," says Detective Hagen. "All of mine have involved alcohol."

One-punch homicides almost invariably happen around bars. It's often two people who have never met before. Beer and bravado combine to escalate a small dispute into a full-blown fist fight.

"What you have is a perfect storm," says Rebecca Waggoner, head of OutFront Minnesota. "Men, who are socialized to be violent. Add alcohol and put them in a mob scene, and you have a recipe for disaster."

It isn't the punch itself that kills—the five-finger death strike remains a myth of martial arts movies. The death blow actually happens when the head hits the ground, slamming into concrete curb or asphalt street.

"That's by far the most likely source of injury," says D.P. Lyle, a national homicide expert and author. "They get knocked unconscious and they hit the ground like the parachute didn't open."

Because it's the fall, not the punch, that is the cause of death, the situation poses a thorny legal question: Should the guy who threw the punch be charged with homicide?

The issue is far from settled, as courts around the country have come to divergent conclusions depending on the circumstances of the crime and the disposition of the judge.

"The difference between a homicide and a murder is a quarter of an inch," says Minneapolis homicide expert Dallas Drake. "Chance plays an incredibly large part."

Ask the men who staggered into the crime, however, and they'll tell you they never imagined they'd be accused of murder.

"They're all incredibly remorseful," says Steve Kokette, a Wisconsin filmmaker who has documented more than 170 one-punch homicides for an upcoming movie. "Think about it: Is there a more remorseful group behind bars in this country than people who killed someone with one punch?"

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