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.
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?"
COLIN BYARS DID WHAT men are supposed to do: He stood up for a woman.
Byars was headed home from Big Shotz Tavern with a friend and a couple of girls when they passed a dark alley haunted by three lingering silhouettes.
One of the shadows stepped toward Byars's group with a taunting question for the ladies: "Where's the after-party at?"
The women tucked their heads in and walked faster. But Byars refused to look the other way.
"Shut the fuck up," he said.
"What did you say to me?" the shadow asked.
"You heard me," he said, stepping off the sidewalk and into the street.
It was a frozen February in Kenosha. The man facing Byars ripped off his jacket and tossed his hat to the ground, a universal symbol for "let's fight."
Byars was ready to scrap. He had been a wrestler in high school and now coached the sport at the local high school, where he was also a special education teacher. He raised his fists.
But the shadow was too quick. Its fist connected with Byars's jaw, cold-cocking him.
The man, Martin Walker, ran off as a crowd gathered around Byars, whose eyes never opened again. His breathing steadily slowed until it finally ceased entirely.
Kenosha County Medical Examiner Mark Witeck performed Byars's autopsy. Witeck found that Byars's brain had hemorrhaged and swollen past its breaking point.
But it wasn't the punch that killed Byars. It was the fall.
"If we freefall without breaking our fall and hit the back of our heads, there is enough momentum and energy generated that the impact can cause somebody to die," explains Dr. Lindsey Thomas, medical examiner for eight Minnesota counties.
Byars's death became a massive news story in Wisconsin—and one of the biggest cases that ever landed on the desk of District Attorney Robert Zapf. Under the law, it was a simple battery—but Zapf decided to charge felony murder.
It was consensual combat, he acknowledged, but Walker had been the aggressor, provoking a drunk man into a fight by making catcalls at his friends.
"I would be surprised that any red-blooded American boy wouldn't put up their dukes to defend themselves," Zapf says.
Walker was found guilty. At his sentencing, Walker wept. "I never meant to kill him," he said, between sobs.
BRADLEY LEWIS SAT AT the bar watching Butch shoot pool with a much younger man at Yesterday's Gone, a Brainerd hotspot.
Butch was old and drunk, with a beard and cane. He was playing a man in his late 30s who'd been drinking at the bar since the morning. Butch botched a shot and asked to re-take it.
The younger man told him no. "That's cheating," he said.
In response, Butch smashed a pool cue over the table and threw a few weak punches. The old man's fists flailed at the other player's bloody nose until Bradley Lewis pulled the two apart. The 25-year-old Lewis wrapped his arm around the 63-year-old Butch and escorted him outside.
"Go home, Butch," Lewis said.
Lewis went out for a smoke, but soon realized that the young pool player had gone out back to confront Butch again. Lewis stepped out to settle the feud.
"You're drunk," Lewis slurred at Butch's attacker. "Go home. Leave Butch alone."
Lewis was brought up poor in the deep South, didn't graduate from high school, and was the youngest of three hell-raisers who fought throughout childhood. He was brought up to respect his elders and fight back if attacked, a true hardscrabble life. When he stepped between Butch and the other man, the 6'3", 220-pound Lewis heard insults—the young pool player called him "fat ass" and lunged at him.
"Dude, if you come at me again, I'm going to mess you up," Lewis warned him.
When the pool player came at him again, Lewis delivered a knockout right.
A few hours later, Lewis was taken into custody by police. He expected to go home that same day. In his hometown, his punch would have been considered self-defense.
Lewis's public defender, Edward Hellekson, agreed that it was. He wanted Lewis to fight his case at trial. It was the best self-defense case he'd ever seen.
The victim, Chad Campbell, had been drinking all day. Campbell had picked the fight. And Campbell's medical records suggested a pre-existing condition had more to do with his death than Lewis did.
"One of the tenets of law in the state of Minnesota is that you take your victim as you find him," Hellekson explains. "I believe that the deceased had a condition most normal people wouldn't have. Some attorneys call it 'the eggshell skull.' If he didn't have that condition he might've been all right."
But Lewis was unwilling to gamble his freedom on a trial and already felt tremendous remorse over the killing.
Crow Wing County Prosecutor Don Ryan knew the Lewis case was unique. He was prepared to take it to trial but had reservations because it wasn't a slam-dunk victory. And the situation was a tragedy for everyone. Ryan understood that incidents like this happen all the time in bars and never get reported because no one dies.
So Ryan offered a plea bargain: one year in jail, 15 years probation, and the threat of 74 months in jail if Lewis violated his terms.
Lewis accepted it and did his time. When he was released, he took a job as a bouncer. Everywhere he goes, people know him as the one-punch killer.
"You always hear about it," Lewis says. "But when it happens in your town, it's a big deal."
DUSTIN GOY SIZED UP Jeremy Smith and decided to interrupt his game of darts by spitting on him.
Smith turned sharply toward the man. He asked what Goy was doing.
Goy rocked back and forth on the tips of his toes, raised his fists, and said, "Let's go."
Goy was not dressed for the fight. The 30-year-old was wearing a button-down tuxedo shirt for a friend's wedding party. It was hosted at the Cottage, a nice bar in Crystal Lake outside Chicago.
Goy was not intimidating to others at the party: At 5'7", 150 pounds, he was a runt whose thin face and short brown hair resembled a prairie dog's.
The wedding guests separated Smith and Goy. He's just trying to be funny, they told Smith. Goy asked Smith for a drink and the two men shook hands to quash the beef.
When the wedding party started to die down, Goy invited some of his friends out to another bar. He walked out of the Cottage with three friends and crossed the street to Brink Street Bar.
They walked past a large man, about 6'2" and 280 pounds, who had been at the same bar that night in a back room for a private party. He was with two gorgeous women. As the group walked past, Goy made a crack to the man about his wife.
The man, Anthony Carlsen, crossed the street to ask what Goy had said. One of Goy's friends shoved Carlsen to the ground. He stood up as one of the women ran over and stepped between them. Carlsen charged at another of the men and pushed him down.
Goy pounced, punching the stranger in the side of his head, toppling him onto his skull.
It happened in less than a minute.
Goy kept his plan to drink at Brink Street Bar as if nothing had happened. He talked with Peter Pritchard, whose girlfriend, Kimberly LaPointe, was the bartender there. A drunk came into the bar just before closing time and asked the pretty bartender how much it would cost to get her topless. Goy helped Pritchard shoo the man out.
Goy talked about his two children. He was polite. He made the bartender laugh. He didn't let on that he'd been in a fight until one of his friends walked into the bar and asked about it.
"Don't worry about it," Goy reassured his friend. "That guy deserved to be punched."
Goy went home that night. He heard a knock at his door the next afternoon.
It was the police, who took him to the station. The next day he was charged with assault.
A week later, Carlsen died, which bumped the charges up to first-degree murder. Goy was facing 60 years of hard time.
Goy hired the best lawyers in town, who told him the autopsy for Carlsen showed he had cocaine in his system. They went on to claim that coke was why Carlsen had been aggressive.
There was more good news for Goy: A new prosecutor, Michael Combs, was assigned to the case, and he didn't believe it was intentional murder. Combs reduced the charges to involuntary manslaughter.
But the good news ended there. Combs thought Goy's self-defense case was "bullshit." With Goy in the courtroom, Combs argued that Goy was a lippy drunk who saw an opportunity to punch someone and took it. He was a jerk who grew bigger beer muscles with every sip.
Goy's defense attorneys disagreed. "If Mr. Goy wants to fight, as the state wants you to believe, why would he pick this giant?" defense attorney Robert Haeger argued.
But Goy presented little defense at trial except for an expert witness who testified that cocaine makes you aggressive. He lost his case. The judge peered down at Goy from her seat and sentenced him to four years in prison.
"This was a senseless act fueled by alcohol," she pronounced.
RONDHA TERHARK ROLLED OVER in the dead of night and answered the ringing telephone.
Her son's best friend, Doug Hatalla, was on the line.
"You need to come down to the hospital right now," he told her.
Adam Baker was in the fight of his life.
Rondha woke her husband, Dennis, who charted the route to North Memorial Hospital and drove 45 miles from their rustic Afton farm to Robbinsdale.
The doctor wasted no time dispensing the horrific news: Adam needed emergency surgery if he was to have any chance of making it through the night. He had been unresponsive when paramedics stretchered him into the hospital, having suffered severe head trauma. Part of his skull needed to be sawed off to give his brain space to swell.
Surgeons noticed more problems once they got him on the operating table: Adam had suffered several hemorrhages and blood clots, one of which was too deep to remove. He wasn't going to make it.
Adam, 32, had been a handsome man in good health, but now his face was swollen beyond recognition. The whites of his eyes morphed into an empty black and blue nebula.
Somehow he survived the night.
A nurse ordered an emergency CT scan for Adam the next afternoon. That led to the discovery that there was too much pressure on his brain from excess spinal fluid. It needed to be drained, so the doctor performed a ventriculostomy, inserting a drainage device into his skull.
Two doors down from Adam was a man who had been thrown out of a car. Doctors operated on both sides of his head and he walked out of the hospital, to Rondha's amazement. Another man had been in a motorcycle accident without a helmet and turned out fine. Adam was punched in the face one time.
After a few days, Adam remained unresponsive. Doctors thought it might improve his chances for survival if they put him into a deep coma. Rondha visited at the hospital and watched her son for signs of life. But the nurses told her the eye twitches she saw were involuntary muscle spasms.
Adam lingered in his coma for seven months until he caught an infection. Doctors thought they could cure it but told the family it would only lead to more infections. Adam was making little progress and was, in fact, getting worse. So Rondha and the rest of Adam's family made the decision to put him into hospice care on November 19 last year. He died on December 3.
For Rondha, Adam's death was a major blow. For Wright County State's Attorney Thomas Kelly, it upped the seriousness of the crime. Alexander Tuomisto was charged with second-degree murder.
Tuomisto copped a plea this May that sent him to prison for three years, admitting he caused great bodily harm to Adam, whose mother sat in the courtroom in quiet disbelief. At the end, she had no sympathy for Tuomisto or his parents, who feel they have lost their son.
"They can call him," she says. "They can go visit him. In three years, they'll get him back. We won't."